Panasonic GX80

I’ve been using a pair of Panasonic GX8s, primarily for session videos, for a few months. I’ve written about the GX8 before, but now I’ve now added a GX80 I thought I do a quick comparison of the two, as well as sharing some initial thoughts.

Background

For the session recordings I needed another usable video camera. I’m settling on the idea of the ideal number of cameras being the number of performers plus two; a dedicated camera for everyone plus a wide shot and a handheld camera to move around the scene. So with the three usable cameras I had (2 x GX8 plus the Olympus E-M1) I could cover individual performers fine (e.g. Gitta de Ridder session) but I was short on cameras on others. For example, with the Ralegh Long session there’s no shot of both performers together, which makes the performance appear less integrated. For the Joe Innes session, with three performers, I really needed another camera and pressed the Fujifilm X100S into video service. Unfortunately the X100S was just terrible in terms of detail retention, focus behaviour, just everything really. It was worse than the Canon 7D I used for my very first recording.

In addition to being terrible at video, the X100S had fallen out of favour for gig photography. Although I love the physical interface, the size, and the quietness, there were problems. The AF would take several attempts to lock-on and even then something about the photos wasn’t quite right. It might have been the lens was soft wide open, or perhaps it was struggling against the high-contrast, direct lighting. Additionally, the X-Trans sensor meant I was forced to use Capture One, rather than DxO, for editing which was annoying[1].

So the X100S was sold and the funds paid for the GX80.

Why the GX80

In some ways another GX8 would have been preferable as consistency in equipment makes it the easier to maintain a constant look when switching between shots. But I bought the GX8s when they were being aggressively promoted with cashback, and that was no longer the case. This time, it was the GX80 on promotion, with body only available for £350 and with the 12-32 lens for £400. If you can stand the extra effort, you could buy the kit and sell the lens for around £140, making a £260 body-only option.

But there’s actually a lot more to recommend it than being cheap.

The GX80 is better than the GX8

The first thing to say is that the GX80 is a much better size than the GX8. The GX8 is in the same weight class as the E-M1 without the ergonomics. For photography, if I’m going to take a camera that size, it will need a bag and I may as well take the E-M1. The GX80, with a small lens, could just about fit in a coat pocket. It’s not a truly small camera, but it’s smallish.

The GX80 has a new shutter design for improved “shutter shock” resistance at low shutter speeds. This really matters for gig photography because I often end up in the 1/60s to 1/200s range. The pure electronic shutter option on the GX8 isn’t something I can use as stages often have LED lights and unless I want to shoot at exactly 1/50s there will be banding on the images.

The GX80 has a slightly lower video crop in 4K mode, approximately 2.2x total versus 2.4x. The space I’m using for sessions is small, and for the wide shots I really want around 28-30mm equivalent to strike a balance between fitting everyone in and things not looking weird. On the GX8 that means a 12mm lens so I have to tie up my good 12-35 zoom, or get a relatively expensive Olympus 12[2]. With the GX80 I might get away with the Panasonic 14.

The GX80 uses sensor stabilisation while shooting video, the GX8 doesn’t. This makes the GX80 an option to replace the E-M1 for handheld video with an unstablised lens. I suspect for sensor-only stabilisation the E-M1 is better, but if I can live with the GX80 then I have a pure 4K setup with a more consistent look and better video autofocus.

The GX8 is better than the GX80

There isn’t really a big headline advantage of the GX8, it’s lots of smaller stuff. You get a better quality, and tilting, viewfinder. More, and better quality, physical controls. The extra bulk of the GX8 does make it handle better with large lenses like the 42.5/1.2 which unbalance the GX80.

For video users there’s a microphone input, Cinelike profiles and a fully articulated screen versus the tilting screen on the GX80.

And, of course, the 20MP sensor versus the 16MP of the GX80 (and E-M1).

However, of all of those points the only one I really care about is the articulated screen. With the small space I video in, I put the cameras as close to the walls as possible to get the most favourable focal lengths. With the GX8 screens I can move them round to face the front so I can operate the camera in place. It also allows the performer to warn me if I start to step into shot. I do prefer tilting screens for pure photography, but given the choice I put more weight on the video use case.

Autofocus woes

The most annoying thing about the GX80, which applies to the GX8 as well, is the autofocus. The single-shot AF[3] is good in that it’s fast and accurate, but the controls around it are poor.

The most common AF change I want to make is to move the AF point between centre, centre-top (landscape, focus on face) and centre-left (portrait, focus on face). On the E-M1 I can just start pressing the pad keys and the point moves. On the GX80, it’s two button presses to start moving and then it’s slower to move as the design supports an unnecessary level of precision on the position.

You can use the touchscreen to either select an absolute focus position, or as a trackpad, and this works well if you only ever shoot landscape. When using the viewfinder in portrait orientation my nose touches the screen so any attempt to move the focus point is treated as a pinch movement and the focus box just resizes. I have to angle the camera away from my face which is awkward and unstable.

I hit another UI issue the first time I took the GX80 gig shooting. At one point it stopped highlighting the actual focus point and replaced with a larger frame. Later on it went back to normal. I’ve reproduced the issue in the video below. Notice how the focus confirmation changes when I zoom in[4].

I’ve had a quick look through the manual and couldn’t find this described, it may well be in there somewhere. But whatever it’s trying to tell me is completely unintuitive. I’m trying to use the camera and it’s making me worried that it wasn’t focusing properly.

GX80 in the club

I’ve now used the GX80 for two shows, Roxanne de Bastion and Vanessa Anne Redd. In each case with the E-M1 and two lenses, the Panasonic 15/1.7 and Panasonic 42.5/1.2.

For the Vanessa show I did experiment with the different combinations of lens and camera. There is an argument for GX80 + 42.5 and E-M1 + 15 as this makes best use of all the different stabilisation systems. But the 42.5 is more likely be used in portrait orientation and I found the GX80 just too annoying.

When looking at the results I also found that where there were things in frame forward of the performer’s face, the GX80 would lock on the wrong point. The GX80 misfocused, compared to my intention, over half of those shots. Conversely, the E-M1 focused all similar shots correctly.

This could, of course, be user error, e.g. perhaps the focus box was too big. But what’s interesting to me is that the GX80 has a load of different focus modes with tracking, custom box sizes, custom patterns, face detection etc., but while E-M1 has none of that, it produces better results and is easier to control. I do think that a lot of the GX80 focus modes are potentially useful for video, but as a photography tool the E-M1 is just better.

As video camera number three

I’ve used the GX80 for one video session, not published yet, and it was absolutely fine. I did use it handheld but I was mostly stationary so don’t have any firm opinions on the stabilisation yet. I have read that it tends to saturate colours more, at given settings, compared to the GX8 and that may be true. I also think that it doesn’t expose quite the same as the GX8, so you can’t blindly duplicate settings between cameras even with identical lenses.

Final thoughts

The GX8 sits higher in the range and has the higher normal selling price. You might therefore expect it to do everything the GX80 can do and more, but that isn’t really the case. Both cameras have their advantages but, for me, the advantages of the GX8 are non-critical. For example, it’s nice to have a better viewfinder but it’s not going to make the difference between the camera being usable or unusable in a given situation.

On the other hand, the advantages of the GX80 could make the difference. The smaller size means I’m more likely to carry it rather than relying on a phone camera, the shutter mechanism is a real advantage for gig photography and the video stabilisation lets me upgrade to 4K for handheld video.

I do plan to keep using the GX80 for gig photography, but always paired to the Panasonic 15 lens where I’m unlikely to need portrait orientation and precise DOF is less important. But for the record, if I had another E-M1 I’d be using that.

I’m sure the GX80 will prove to be an absolutely fine video camera, and at £260 it’s a ridiculous bargain. It’s not a perfect, but at that price I’ll forgive it.

  1. The output from Capture One is fine, I just don’t get on with the Catalogue/Session file handling model [Back]
  2. Or the even more expensive Panasonic, or the cheaper, but manual, Samyang [Back]
  3. I haven’t tested the continuous focus for moving subjects [Back]
  4. When I saw this is in the wild I was using a prime [Back]