Panasonic made waves for Micro Four Thirds (MFT) videographers earlier this year with the video powerhouse Lumix DC-GH5. The soon-to-be-released Lumix DC-G9 presents an equally impressive camera for MFT still shooters. The flagship body will be accompanied by a 400mm equivalent super-telephoto prime, the Leica DG Elmarit 200mm f/2.8 POWER O.I.S Lens, aimed at sports and wildlife photographers. A 1.4x teleconverter is included with the powerful lens and a 2.0x teleconverter is available for separate purchase to add even greater reach. To get a feel for how the two performed together, I headed as close to nature as I could get—in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park.
Birds presented the most fitting (and attainable) models for a camera and lens designed for speed and reach. This choice brought back memories of hiking through the woods of Western Pennsylvania as a child, clunky binoculars around my neck, trusted field guide in my hand. I relished the opportunity to rekindle my old passion with the caliber of equipment my younger self only dreamt of using.
Note: All images are uncropped and focal lengths are designated in the captions as 35mm equivalents.
Photographs © Cory Rice
Prospect Park is no Appalachian wilderness, but it does pack well over 200 species of birds into its 526 acres. I brought the G9 along for a few weekend trips through the park as the fall season neared winter. Before embarking on my journey, I checked in with the very friendly and helpful staff at the Prospect Park Audubon Center to get some pointers on the best spots around the park to scout models for my review.
Although I have mostly transitioned from SLRs to mirrorless gear, this was my first experience with a Micro Four Thirds camera. Despite having a 2.75-lb lens attached to its body, the G9 felt comfortable in my hands. A battery grip will be available separately if you need more to hold on to, but I never really felt that I needed the extra support, and battery life was never an issue during my outings. Among the most impressive features of the G9 is its six-and-a-half stops of image stabilization, and I was impressed by how much flexibility this gave me when shooting. All of the photographs in this article were made with camera in hand. The Leica’s tripod collar can be loosened so that the lens and camera can rotate while your grip on the tripod mount remains steady. The experience is much less awkward than its description above.
The G9 has an LCD panel on the top of the camera body for quick reference while shooting. I found this to be a thoughtful addition that is commonplace on DSLRs but absent from many mirrorless cameras. Similarly, its OLED viewfinder offers 0.83x magnification, 3.68m-dot resolution, and 120 fps speed, creating a natural feel when shooting.
A 3" 1.04m-dot free-angle touchscreen serves as multifunctional interface for the camera. I was happy to learn that it can be extended away from the camera body and rotated, allowing shots taken at an awkward angle to be handled with ease. Additionally, this permits the screen to be tucked into the body while shooting to avoid accidentally changing settings. The G9 also offers touch-to-focus capability; however, I did not really use this since I was shooting handheld and had to use my second hand to support the long lens. You can scroll through and zoom in on images with the touchscreen; I found this to be a useful feature for quick confirmation of focus while shooting in the field. Overall, the menu system is about what I expected: not any more or less user-friendly than other mirrorless cameras on the market.
The G9 is billed as splash-, dust-, and freeze-proof, which are important features for photographers who shoot sports and wildlife. To test these claims, during one of my visits to the park I nervously exposed the camera and lens to a very wet snowfall for about two hours. To my relief, the camera and lens were unaffected by the slushy conditions. I wish I could say the same for my fingers and toes.
The G9 boasts a 20.3MP Live MOS Micro Four Thirds sensor and an enhanced Venus Engine 10 processor. It has a Depth-from-Defocus autofocus system that makes use of 225 areas. Working with the autofocus was easy enough and refining focus from large to small areas was intuitive when done using the wheel and joystick in tandem on the back of the camera. To speed up focus time, the 200mm includes a focus-control switch that can be activated when your subject is more than 3m away, as well as a programmable “Memory” button that can be customized to your liking.
Focusing on birds hopping between tree branches presents a difficult task for even the most capable autofocus system. I often found myself switching to manual focusing for fine-tuning my shots. Except under the most complicated situations, the G9’s autofocus got me into a usable range, locking on to feathers pretty easily. From there it was a quick manual adjustment to make sure that the bird’s eyes were in focus for the best shot. To keep up with my hyperactive subjects, I relied on the G9’s focus magnification and focus peaking features. As would be expected, manual focusing with the Leica was silky smooth and I found the glass exceptionally sharp.
My photographs benefited from Dual I.S. 2, a marriage of in-camera sensor-shift image stabilization technology, and the image stabilization present in Lumix O.I.S lenses. The result is six-and-a-half stops of stabilization (one and a half more than the GH5) and no camera shake in my images despite my shivering hands and a nearly 3-lb lens. I found this feature to be the greatest strength of the G9.
The 1.4x included with the lens, as well as the 2.0x teleconverter (available separately), add reach at the cost of one and two stops of light loss, respectively. The extra magnification of the 800mm equivalent combination really grew on me and I ended up using it for more shots than I had originally expected.
While the G9 did a good job keeping pace with my flighty models, one issue that I did run into was the in-camera JPEG compression. Even when the highest resolution setting for JPEG capture was selected, I found fine detail to be smudged, especially in images captured at higher ISOs. When viewing images above 80% edges appeared excessively smoothed and detail blurred. This was not the case with the raw files, which revealed the impressive sharpness of the lens. It is worth mentioning that my test occurred with a prototype model of the G9 and these issues may be resolved prior to the camera’s release, or as a firmware update. Nevertheless, I would recommend shooting raw when possible, so that you get the best available image quality. The photographs used in this article were converted to JPEG using Adobe Camera Raw.
Over the course of my review, the G9 grew on me more and more. Will I sell all of my gear and switch to Micro Four Thirds? Not quite. However, if I were already committed to the format, both the Panasonic G9 and Leica 200mm f/2.8 would be very tempting additions to my camera bag.
Are you excited for the G9? Excited about birds? Let us know in the Comments section, below.