Wednesday, March 12, 2014

One year with the Panasonic GH3 and 35-100mm f/2.8

When I bought the GH3, I was practically desperate to combat low light photography in a way I had not tried since ASA 400 speed film was considered high speed.

I photograph sports.  I usually do it well, but certain gymnasiums and swimming pools make the task much more difficult.  Many gyms have multiple levels of seating, which restrict the floor level to sports-related people, i.e., those involved in the game or meet such as athletes, coaches, and referees.  Equally, a swim meet I was supposed to photograph put the swimmers behind a wall of glass.  However, nothing is worse than poor lighting and it's more likely than not.  If you can't adequately see the athletes, it's likely that the camera can't capture the moment.

I met with quite a few lighting obstacles, especially with high ceilings and few lights.  There are many schools that were built in the 1960s or earlier, and often small communities struggle to pay the bills.

I've often felt that getting a few keepers out of hundreds of photos was still a good workout.  In the case of dark venues, I was getting very few keepers.  I had considered switching brands, tossing my old equipment, and hoping for the best.  I analyzed a number of other photographers' photos and found that Nikon and Canon weren't in much better shape than Olympus in the US$1000-$2000 range for camera bodies.  Being that I would be spending US$2500 on a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens to complete the combination, it had to do much, much better, if I was to spend US$4200.  I dare say that the D800 is still in the same normal ISO sensitivity range, up to ISO 6400, where the D7100 resides.  They may seem better, but are they really?

The crazy, but conservative alternative was the released but difficult to find Panasonic GH3 body.  With an adapter, it could be used with my current lenses.  I had never used a Panasonic body but I was impressed with the construction of the Four-Thirds Leica 25mm f/1.4 lens made for the Leica Digilux 3--made by Panasonic.

Every review I read said that the GH3 was an adequate stills body and an amazing value for video.  As most photographers know, the world is moving to hybrid photography, and the GH3 (and now GH4) is a good product to become acquainted with it.

I had been looking for lenses, but Olympus was answering the call for fixed focal length lenses and generally, Panasonic had a number of software-corrected zoom lenses that weren't good without bright light, starting with an aperture of f/4.0, such as my 45-200mm.  Panasonic also had their new fixed aperture lenses, the 12-35mm f/2.8 and 35-100mm f/2.8, but with an earlier X-series lens, it didn't seem that they might be adequately designed.  When I read the reviews for the 35-100mm especially, on LensTip, I cringed for sure.

After a grinding debate, I ordered the GH3 and 35-100mm f/2.8 lens.  They arrived, I tried them alongside the E-5 and 35-100mm f/2.0 lens combination.  I tried many settings but in moderate light, the E-5 was better for image quality and color fidelity.  However, the GH3 delivered in darker areas, although I trashed a number of photos over ISO 3200.  In fact, the shots from ISO 4000 and up weren't good enough to be grainy photographs of Big Foot, at least, not for me.

In using the camera body, I ran into some odd problems that I decided were new user problems.  At some angles, the viewfinder image was curved, and the color was always incorrect.  The standard setting pushed me to view every photo after I took it, causing a lengthy pause in the feed, although I kept shooting, as though I could see.    Such is the life of a Live Viewfinder, as Panasonic calls it.  I found the setting to turn off instant review, and the pause was minimized.

At every event, I would revise and refine the settings to my liking, just as I would do with any dSLR.  The images weren't bad but they were never really great.

I tried manually focusing, as the auto focus would often focus somewhere odd, but between the short 35-100mm lens, and the magnification (manual focus assist), I never could rely on manual focus, as I did with an optical viewfinder.  This became more of a problem with track season, and I had to modify my techniques to just do the job.  Then, my sunglasses in concert with the viewfinder would often produce a black view--100% obstruction of the scene.  Auto Focus was equally an opponent to good photos, as it would often choose the chain link fence behind the runners.  If you've ever photographed a chain link fence, you know it's more difficult to focus on it because it's not deep.

However, I've adapted, and I've found ways to make things work, and I've had some good shots.  If it's to be believed, the GH4 likely addresses all of the problems I've encountered.  I'm ready for equipment that doesn't get in my way.  Truth be told, switching from the Olympus E-1 to the E-5, I had my doubts, also but it was certainly less of a stretch moving from dSLR to dSLR, although it didn't feel that the same company designed them both.

I doubt I'll back away from mirror-less bodies now, even though Panasonic had not convinced me 100% through the GH3.  Once the Olympus 40-150mm f/2.8 lens is available, I'll likely trade the GH3 and Panasonic 35-100mm f/2.8 lens because, even without image stabilization, I'll get better shots.  How?  I've been shooting with the E-1, which has no image stabilization, and also with the E-5, which has simple two axis stabilization, as well with the GH3 and Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 lens.

It's been a rough road since I got the GH3 but I've found that it is capable of good photography when fitted with the correct lenses.  That could be said of almost any equipment, but I've truly been shocked at how good it really is with Olympus lenses attached, even through an adapter.


  • Strong, flexible video options
  • Comfortable body, especially with Four-Thirds lenses
  • Articulated rear display
  • Silent mode
  • Weather-sealing, magnesium alloy frame
  • Battery life
  • Five customization profiles


  • EVF magnifying glass effect, blackouts
  • Image quality above ISO 3200
  • File naming doesn't contain date
  • Too small for larger Four-Thirds lenses

Update 2014.03.20: I watched a video on Vimeo today between Zacuto Films and a Panasonic representative.  They were enthusiastic about the GH4 and they got some good answers from the representative.  I was amused at the quick disappointment concerning the 35-100mm f/2.8 lens feeling plasticky and how the 12-35mm f/2.8 lens felt like a good piece of equipment.  They sounded like my comments on the lens.  The Panasonic representative didn't say anything other than the X-series lenses were meant to work at a higher level.  I wish mine would.  I didn't mention it much in this blog entry because I've complained thoroughly about it in others.  You can get good shots with it, but you have to be very, very careful.  Despite the price, it should not be a US$1500 lens.  US$750 would be more than enough for a lens of this caliber, especially one Made in China.

In any case, the GH3 has been a good camera body and makes me think that Panasonic has mostly thought about the photographer, more in handling lately than Olympus has.  It was the perfect transition from the Olympus E-5--the E-M1 certainly isn't.

One thing that has consistently surprised me about a camera body with two displays is that the battery lasts a very long time.  It's not a huge battery, either, especially coming from the E-1 and the E-5.

The other day, I tried Silent Mode for the first time.  It was interesting, but of course, I couldn't tell much of what was happening since there was no feedback really.  I could tell that something was being written to the card but I had no idea how many frames had been taken.

Update 2014.03.29: Panasonic offers a lot, and the flaws can be a problem, but as with any dSLR, you learn and adapt.  The GH4 is better but more expensive.  It's an easy choice if your main intent is to make video content, but they've also made some improvements for still photography.  If you consider that the GH3 + 12-40mm f/2.8 combo has been my constant companion over the past several weeks and the E-5 and E-1 have remained in the bag (and usually at home), I think you'll understand how good the GH3 actually is.

If I could make changes, I would use Olympus' Super Control Panel and TruePIC VII processing, along with the VF-4 viewfinder.  Why not just buy the E-M1?  It's uncomfortable for use with the Four-Thirds lenses it was specially designed to handle.   The GH3 was more thoughtfully designed for photographers.

For those looking at the GH3 as it is dropped in price, think about how inexpensive it is for a weather-sealed, high quality full HD video device.  Sure, the Pentax K-50 is less expensive for a weather-sealed body and you can buy unsealed lenses on the cheap, if still photography is what you want, but the GH3 is of a bit higher specification overall and the lenses are almost always smaller.

Update 2014.04.17: Panasonic have permanently reduced the price of the GH3 to US$1099.99.  This should make high quality video available to many more people, and make the GH3 bodies a more affordable platform to small studios.  Of course, there have been discounts that have dropped the price lower but they were temporary.  However, this makes buying the Canon 70D and Nikon D7100 for video less reasonable choices, except for those heavily invested in lenses for those brands.

I continue to find the GH3 and Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 lens a compelling combination.  Many will find the combination pricy but I find fewer lenses of higher image quality fit my needs better than more lenses of lower image quality--and weather-sealing is necessary for me.  If you've ever lived in an area subject to loads of dust and sudden weather changes, you'll understand the importance of not damaging a lens worth hundreds or thousands of dollars.

Update 2014.05.23: I've used the GH3 a number of times to get a vertical shot from a very low angle using the rear display tilted away from the body, a position unavailable to the Olympus E-M1 or the FujiFilm X-T1.  That in itself is enough to remind me that the GH3 and GH4 have a flexibility I need.

Had I tried to do the same shot with the E-M1 or X-T1, I might as well be using the fixed display of a Canon 70D or Nikon D7100.

Update 2015.03.22: Since I traded the GH3 in June 2014, I'd been using an Olympus E-M1.  It worked well for still photography, but of course, was not very good for video.  In December, I got the GH4, and it reminded me of all the good things that I liked about the GH3.  Many problems with the GH3 were fixed in the GH4, but auto focus is still a problem.  Image quality is better in many respects but photos are still limited to a useful ISO sensitivity of 3200, for my use.  Fixing the chroma noise problem has made those look better, but it's not enough to help the overall problem above that sensitivity.

The 35-100mm f/2.8 lens continues to disappoint, especially as I'm recording video now.  The stuttering of the OIS, even after the firmware update for it, is extreme.

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