Panasonic GX8 Review: a Near-Perfect Travel Camera

Why I think it beats other options—including the Sony Alpha 6000 series

I’ve used the Panasonic GX8 for a few months now, replacing my ageing Rebel Ti DSLR. As a travel blogger I’m on the road often, so I’ve looked to switch to a more portable mirrorless system—but coming from an SLR, I also wanted an enthusiast-grade system that doesn’t skimp on features or ergonomics.

The GX8 isn’t perhaps the trendiest mirrorless camera, as Sony’s Alpha cameras seem to be the bestsellers at the moment. After testing various mirrorless cameras over the past year, I was initially eying a Sony Alpha 6300 as well, but I ultimately went with the GX8 instead.

While the Sony 6000+ series, Fuji X-T2, Olympus PEN-F and Panasonic GX8 (to name a few close competitors) all have different pros and cons, the GX8 has a few compelling advantages, especially for travel photography.

Specs and features

  • 20 Megapixel Micro Four Thirds sensor
  • 4-axis in-body stabilisation
  • 49-point Auto Focus system
  • 2.36M-dot EVF
  • 3″ fully tilting OLED screen
  • Video resolution of 2160px @ 30fps (4K)
  • Dimensions: 133 x 78 x 63mm
  • Weight: 487 g
Price: $1,199.99 $997.99   -17%  view  at amazon

 

Ergonomics and ease of use

The GX8 is slightly bigger than other mirrorless cameras such as the GX7, the Sony Alpha 6000 series, or the Olympus PEN series (by about 1 cm or 1/3 of an inch in width and height).

While it’s a little stockier, its size gives it a nice grip even for larger hands, and affords more space for manual controls and customisable function buttons. None of the buttons feel fiddly nor are they lumped too closely together, making it feel like… well, an SLR.

I love the manual control for exposure compensation, which I end up using all the time. It lets you increase or decrease exposure in a snap without having to go into a menu.

In fact, you rarely have to go into the menus at all. For instance, you can select autofocus points simply by touching the screen while looking through the EVF. The GX8 is not the only camera to have this feature, though it’s a great feature nonetheless, and one that I wouldn’t want to be without now that I’ve gotten used to it. Coming from a camera where I had to select an AF point with the D-pad (forcing me to put the camera down and look at the screen), and then aim roughly for that AF point, it’s a real game-changer.

A distinguishing aspect of the GX8 is its fully articulating screen, which is a surprisingly rare feature for a mirrorless camera. Most only let you tilt the screen up by about 30 degrees, but the GX8 lets you flip the screen any way you’d like. This is perfect for taking shots from unusual angles, taking selfies, or monitoring your shots while shooting video.

Fancying myself a ‘proper photographer’ who ‘only uses the viewfinder’, I end up using the articulating screen much more than anticipated. It lets me easily take shots that would have been far more challenging without it.

It also lets you be more discreet with street photography or portraits, as looking down at a screen tilted upwards draws far less attention than when you’re looking through the viewfinder.

In what is a unique feature to the GX8, you can also tilt the electronic viewfinder. Honestly, I’ve rarely found a good use for this, though maybe videographers would be more intrigued as they will more commonly shoot from chest-height.

Speaking of the EVF, it’s one of the best I’ve tried. I would compare it to a retina display on a smartphone, in that you won’t notice any pixels. This is much better than other electronic viewfinders I’ve used which clearly show a low-res or rasterized image. In very bright light the screen occasionally isn’t so easy to view, but the image is still clear enough that I don’t miss having an analog viewfinder.

The only criticism I have on the ergonomics is the placement of two of the customisable function buttons. The quick-menu button is on the exact spot where my thumb rests on the back, so I kept hitting it by accident (this led, for instance, to unintentionally setting a different White Balance). Another button on the front is on the exact spot where my middle finger rests while I hold the grip. In what is otherwise a wonderful camera to use, these two button placements are frankly bizarre.

I solved the issue by assigning a function related to the flash to the front button (since I don’t have an external flash, pressing the button does nothing, effectively disabling it), and assigning a similarly non-interfering function to the quickmenu. Now it’s perfect, though it’s a little silly I had to hack around this issue. I suppose it’s a good thing the camera lets you customise so many of the button functions.

Advantages of micro four thirds

The GX8 uses a micro four thirds (MFT) sensor, which is a somewhat smaller sensor than your typical APS-C (used in entry-level SLRs as well as Sony, Fuji, and Canon mirrorless cameras). It’s also smaller than full-frame for that matter (used in most professional-grade cameras).

There are some known disadvantages to this smaller format. For instance, you have a longer depth of field, so making photos with a blurry background can be a bit more difficult. It’s a point that shouldn’t be overstated though, as with a suitably wide aperture lens you can still easily achieve wonderful bokeh on MFT.

The smaller format also affects low-light performance, specifically the level of graininess at higher ISOs. Despite this, I’ve been very pleased with the low-light performance on the GX8 (more on that later).

12mm, f2.8, using 12-35mm Panasonic lens

I believe these minor disadvantages of micro four thirds are simply dwarfed by the enormous advantage of being able to use lighter, smaller, and often cheaper lenses. Because a smaller sensor simply doesn’t need as big of a lens, you can pack some mean kit while still keeping things highly portable.

I paired my GX8 with a 12-35mm lens (24-70mm full frame equivalent) which has a constant aperture of f2.8 and costs around 700 USD or EUR. It weighs just 300 grams, which simply boggles the mind. A similar lens on my Canon SLR would have weighed three times as much and would have had triple the price tag as well. The same lens on a Sony Alpha system would have weighed a kilo and costs more than 2000 Euro.

It seems the minor disadvantages of the MFT format are easily offset by being able to pair it with a better lens at a far lower weight and cost.

Low light performance

I’m used to keeping the max ISO at 3200 or 1600, where the GX8 produces very clear images. It’s a struggle to notice any grain at these ISOs, except at full zoom in Adobe Lightroom. At ISO 6400, it’s still maybe borderline useable (with some strong noise reduction), but anything higher is definitely super grainy to a degree that I think most will find unusable.

ISO levels aside, the GX8 has two key features that help to enhance its low-light performance.

One is the GX8’s 4-axis in-body stabilisation, which significantly increases your ability to take razor-sharp shots even when handheld in low light. Panasonic touts a technology called Dual IS which lets the in-body and in-lens stabilisation (if present) work in concert. How much this improves the IS is impossible for me to say, though the IS works great in practice.

The other impressive aspect is the Auto Focus which can detect subjects within a range of -4 EV. The norm for most cameras is -1 or -2EV, and only Sony’s A7S and A7S II also feature -4 EV autofocus (both are high-end cameras specialised in low-light and in a much higher price tier). What this means in practice is that even in low light the GX8’s AF usually snaps onto a subject easily.

Lisbon funicular – 1/10 of sec @ f2.8 on 12-45mm Panasonic lens (ISO 800)

Thanks to the Dual IS and great AF, nearly all my pictures are tack sharp in good light. When shooting handheld in low light the success ratio is maybe closer to 70/30, though this is still good enough not to fuss about whether to pack a tripod.

With my old Canon Rebel Ti3 SLR I often struggled in low light, even when using a f1.4 prime lens. Just look at the blurry mess I got from shooting Day of the Dead in Mexico a few years back… ugh! The AF just wouldn’t know what to do, and manual focus was too difficult to get right.

With the GX8, I can easily take sharp pictures whether it’s night or day, which for me is truly a difference of night and day.

Caving on the Azores – shot at 12mm @ f2.8 using 12-35mm Panasonic lens (ISO 1600)

When pushed to higher ISOs, a micro four thirds camera will always produce grainier images than an APS-C or full-frame. Still, in tests by DPreview the GX8 has been shown capable of outperforming larger-sensor cameras which theoretically should be better, such as the Canon 70D.

Whatever the lab tests say, in real world scenarios I’ve much enjoyed using the GX8 in low light.  I was recently shooting at f2.8 inside a cave with barely any light and it managed very well.

In large part thanks to the IS and great AF, I don’t feel the need to necessarily carry an additional high aperture lens (even though I’ll surely end up buying an f.1.7 prime anyway).

GX8 as a travel camera

Since I’m a travel blogger, let me talk a bit about how the GX8 has worked for me as a travel camera.

The GX8 is light to carry, which makes a huge difference for travel. With a 12-35mm lens it’s just around 800 grams, and with a pancake or prime lens it’s even lighter. This makes me carry the camera around much more often, even in casual situations.

Thanks to weather-sealing it’s also no issue taking a GX8 into rainy, misty or dusty environments. I used to think this wasn’t so important until my Canon SLR shut down for a week after I took it into the mists of Iguazu Falls in Brazil (vapor got into the system – I’m lucky it dried out). With the GX8, I wouldn’t have had this problem.

The GX8 is a versatile tool thanks to the fully articulating screen, good low-light performance, super fast AF, and in-body stabilisation.

1/320 sec @ 30mm, f5

There are also a few things I’m less impressed with…

The battery life is awful. For me, it barely lasts a day on one battery. That’s not unusual for mirrorless cameras, but it’s still at the lower end of the typical battery life range.

For extended travel activities such as multi-day hikes, multiple batteries are a must. And if you shoot a lot of video, the GX8 eats batteries like it’s popcorn. Sadly, the camera won’t charge over USB, otherwise a USB battery would have been a wonderful solution. I recommend getting a pair of off-brand spare batteries from Amazon or Ebay. (No need to get the overpriced Panasonic ones.)

Finally, the GX8 doesn’t have an internal flash. It’s not a deal-breaker for me as I don’t ever use flash, but if you need flash you’ll have to attach an external one to the hot-shoe.

Video performance

I’m mainly a stills photographer, but a few notes on the video capabilities:

It’s well set up for shooting video with great IS, 4K resolution, and an external mic port (but no headphone port). The framerate doesn’t go beyond 30 fps for 4K though, and only up to 60 fps for 1080p, making it not so great for getting smooth slow-motion shots.

Annoyingly, the mic input is non-standard. You need a 2.5mm to 3.5mm adaptor, which isn’t provided by Panasonic in the box. It’s not a biggie (they cost about a dollar), but still a little odd.

While the GX8 handles video extremely well, the Panasonic GH4 places more emphasis on video-specific features, so you may want to look at this camera if video is your top priority.

1/200 sec @ 12mm, f3.5

GX8 pros and cons

Pros:

  • Feels and handles well; lots of manual controls
  • Great lens selection (Olympus lenses also compatible)
  • Easy WiFi connectivity and remote smartphone control
  • Weather-sealed
  • Very fast autofocus
  • Great low-light performance
  • Crystal clear EVF
  • Dual stabilisation (if using Panasonic lenses)
  • Fully articulating screen
  • Good value for money

Cons:

  • Grainier at higher ISOs than APS-C
  • Short battery life (spare battery recommended)
  • No charging over USB
  • Some (solvable) niggles about button placement
  • No internal flash

Conclusion

On paper, the GX8 seems like a very compelling travel camera. Despite a couple of minor complaints, I’ve found this to be true in practice as well.

If the smaller Micro Four Thirds sensor is keeping you on the fence (as it did for me for some time), I should say that the supposed disadvantages around depth of field control and low-light performance are actually quite subtle. Unless you’re doing studio work or high-end professional photography, you might not care about the difference. On the other hand, the advantage of MFT’s lighter and cheaper lenses (getting you wider aperture for less) is huge.

The GX8 itself offers good value for money. The specs are close to the Sony a6500 (apart from its sensor), yet it is 400 USD cheaper. The Fujifilm X-T2, another direct competitor, is 600 USD more expensive than the GX8. The MFT format provides further savings with the lenses, as there is a wide range of attractively priced Olympus and Panasonic lenses available.

If you’re looking for a highly portable travel camera that still ticks all the boxes of an entry- or midlevel SLR, then the Panasonic GX8 is definitely worth considering.

Price: $1,199.99 $997.99   -17%  view  at amazon

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