Lumix in Alaska, more impressions

Some of my friends have been asking for a review of my Lumix G5 kit.  My previous post on the camera gear I took to Alaska focused mainly on how I managed to carry and travel with the gear, and said little about the actual shooting or my impressions of the camera and lenses themselves.  I will hopefully rectify that with this post.

This was my first opportunity for an extended run of daily shooting in large volume. In total, I shot over 2,800 pictures in 12 days.  Some days were very high volume (over 700 on the whale watching tour!), and others much lower, but even on driving days, if I was not behind the wheel, I was behind a lens.

What follows will be a semi-random mash-up of recollections and impressions, which I will hopefully be able to at least loosely organize before I succumb to the temptation to click “Publish”.

First off, this camera is lightweight, noticeably lighter than my father’s Canon Rebel T3i and 28-80 lens.  It’s also a good bit smaller.  This has its pros and cons, though.  The T3i’s handgrip fits my hand better, and the hand position required to keep my thumb pad from mashing the back buttons on the G5 does lead to a bit of a sore hand at first.  You get used to it fairly quickly, though, but it might be a consideration for larger-handed folk.

I found myself wrapping the thin neck strap around my wrist and hand most of the time, and rarely used it as a true neck strap.  This wasn’t due to any discomfort in the strap itself — the camera is light enough I don’t know that it needs a wider strap — but rather just that I dislike having anything dangling from my neck like that.  I did this so much that when I got home I bought a wrist-strap to replace the neck strap.

One thing we did note. The first time I handed it to my wife, who has no familiarity with DSLR-style cameras, I told her to turn the top dial to “P”.  I noticed that for some reason the dial kept getting turned to “M”.  It took a few iterations before I realized that if you select “M”, the “P” lines up fairly closely with the mark on top of the On/Off lever.  Once we clarified which index mark is used with the dial, there were no more problems.
Lumix G5 Top Controls

Another thing I’ll say.  For getting really good snapshots when you’re as interested (or more) in what’s going on than in “taking a good photograph”, the Intelligent Auto (iA) mode ROCKS.  It is very, very good at guessing what sort of picture you’re taking (portrait, still life, landscape, etc…), choosing appropriate exposure settings, and providing an intuitive way of customizing the shot.

In some cases, it’s a little too smart, though.  It sort of takes over the camera, and things don’t work quite the way you expect.  In particular, it changes the auto-focus operation in ways that I still don’t understand.  And it’s easy to leave on when you don’t mean to, so sometimes I would switch to Aperture or Shutter priority, accidentally leave iA on, and wonder why I couldn’t choose the AF mode that I wanted.

If you want to use iA mode, be sure to practice before you do any really important shoots.  Of course that’s good advice for all camera modes and features.  iA mode is especially good for those times when you hand your camera off to a non-photo-geek.

I used the “P” mode with iA quite a bit when we were touring around and I wanted to focus on the vacation and not on the photography, and I was rewarded with some great snapshots.  I’d even venture to say that in many “normal” situations the iA logic is still smarter than me at photography.  I’m working hard to change that, of course.

Battery life.  
I mentioned this in the other thread.  I think I was getting about 300-350 photos out of the stock 1200mA-h battery from Panasonic, pretty close to the rated life.  I had two “Wasabi” third party batteries as spares, rated at 1600mA-h.  I haven’t done an official test, and you’d think I’d get another hundred shots or so out of each of them.  I don’t think I did.  I’m quite certain one of them (#1) was dying at about half the Panasonic battery’s life, and the other one might have been getting the same 300 shots as the Panasonic.  I won’t go so far as to say these are junk — they did their job as backups, and I don’t have any solid data to back up my thoughts — but let’s just say this may be a case of you get what you pay for.  Spares were definitely a good thing to have on this trip, though. On the bright side, the Wasabi batteries came with a travel charger that worked quite well and included a handy car adapter. The charger alone was worth the price I paid for the set.

Lenses.  As I mentioned, I brought three on the trip:

  • Lumix G-Vario 14-42mm f3.5-5.6 wide zoom
  • Olympus Zuiko 40-150mm f4-5.6 long zoom
  • Canon FD 50mm f1.8

The Canon is a full-on manual lens, so I have to use it in Aperture-priority or full manual, and it’s manual focus.  It stayed in the bag most of the time, but I pulled it out occasionally for an artistic flower shot or other shot where I had time to relax and focus on the photography.  Still, it’s a very small lens and was nice to have around.
Example photo with the Canon FD 50mm lens, f1.8 1/640.

The other two lenses are an interesting pair.  The Lumix 14-42 is the “kit lens” that came with the camera.  It has optical image stabilization built in, which is nice and gets me a couple of “stops” of slower shutter speed when I need it, but it also has a very poor, jerky zoom motion that makes it nearly impossible to zoom smoothly in video mode, and somewhat tricky to zoom well even when taking still shots.  It’s also not a fast lens, and suffers from the usual consumer-grade lens curse of variable aperture. Still, it does yeoman service till I can afford something better, and takes pretty good wide shots.
Example photo with the Lumix G-Vario 14-42mm at 14mm f6.3 1/320

The Olympus 40-150 is the Lumix’s polar opposite. It has a very smooth zoom mechanism and takes nice, sharp photos, but being an Olympus lens it does not have image stabilization, and worse, there’s some sort of glitch in the auto-focus logic that causes it to fail to lock on at full zoom occasionally. Usually at the worst possible moment. Still, it’s a very nice lens, my favorite of the three, and I don’t regret for a moment buying it. I think there’s a firmware upgrade for the lens that may address the AF issue, but I haven’t looked into that yet.
Example photo with the Olympus Zuiko 40-150mm at 150mm f11 1/320

I didn’t bring a flash with me, and I only rarely used the on-camera flash. Most of the time we were outdoors with adequate light, or indoors in a situation where flash was not allowed. I have in other cases had some luck using the G5’s onboard flash as a fill, but in most “you need flash” situations it does the same bad job as any camera-mounted flash, filling the subject with harsh, flat light. It’s not the G5’s fault. It’s the geometry of the situation.

Rapid fire. I made heavy use of this, especially when chasing whales.  When in single-shot mode, the G5 takes a noticeable amount of time to store the 16MP image directly to the SD card, even with a fast Class 10 card.  I found that if I put it on the “Medium” speed rapid fire, with a light finger on the shutter I could still do single shots, but they would go to buffer RAM instead of the SD, allowing me to get a second shot off quicker, but control when it happened.  Or I could just mash the shutter and grab a whole sequence of shots.  The “High” speed repeats too fast for me to do the single-shot trick.

Joby Gorillapod Hybrid
I left my Manfrotto at home, as even though it’s a compact tripod, it’s rather large for hauling through an airport.  Instead, I packed my Gorillapod Hybrid.  I only used it once, but when I did, I really needed it.  at the far end of our Denali bus tour, we spotted some Dall sheep high on the mountainside behind us.  So far up, they were barely visible as little white blips against the greenery and rocks.  The tour guide whipped out his spotting scope and allowed everyone to get a good look.  I set up the gorillapod, rolled the Oly lens to 150, and turned on the 4x digital zoom on the G5 to get this shot:

It’s not much. Hazy and fuzzy and tons of noise… digital zoom will do that for you. But hey, I have a picture where you can count the legs on sheep that were over 3/4 mile away. Without the Gorillapod, I would have had an unrecognizable mess.

Finally, memory.
I brought tons. Well, 3 or 4 cards in sizes ranging from 8 to 32GB, all Class 4 or Class 10. Not much to say here, except you can’t have too much memory on hand. The Think Tank Pixel Pocket Rocket was a handy way to keep the spares close.

In summary, I love this camera setup, especially for a travel situation such as this trip. I’ve got most of the practical features of a much more expensive camera, in a smaller, lighter package that travels well. Is it perfect? No. Will its photos stack up against pro gear? No. But for the task that I set it to, I’d rather have had my G5 kit than my father’s Canon gear.

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