Macro photography with the Panasonic Lumix GH3

In December 2012 Panasonic Australia commissioned me to take macro photographs with the Lumix GH3, their soon to be released, top of the line new single lens mirrorless digital camera.

Through my previous experience with Lumix GH cameras I had come to appreciate the overall excellence of this camera system (Lumix Life Focus on Australia and GH1 online gallery). The GH3 specifications promised even more features and improvements and I relished getting my hands on the GH3 and new lenses.

When the camera and lenses arrived, I jumped right in with enthusiasm – there was little time to waste – the loan equipment was required back in time for the impending Australian product launch.

It had been a very dry winter and arthropods had yet to emerge in large numbers and wide variety. But thanks to my son’s eagle eyes and brilliant catching skills, it wasn’t long before I received from him a steady flow of interesting macro subjects.

In addition to the captive subjects, I stalked nocturnal critters through swamps, meadows and forests until the early morning hours. It was during those long night trips, carrying the gear with the additional load of flashes, lights and their batteries, that I really came to appreciate the light weight and small size of this camera. Holding the camera with mounted flash in one hand, while pointing a second flash in the other, I could hunt for elusive subjects for hours without my arms becoming too jittery to accurately focus. The equivalent DSLR rig would have forced me to have frequent breaks. In one small hip bag I carried a full complement of professional grade lenses from 14mm to 600mm, including macro, fast constant f2.8 aperture zooms ranging from 28mm to 200mm and a low-light-busting f1.7 40mm. I worked for many hours at a time without putting the gear down and without feeling any strain. I was ready for nearly any photo opportunity while shooting from the hip!

The GH3’s ergonomics are outstandingly well designed, exemplified by its superb swing-out / rotate display that proved to be a critical boon for shooting macro, especially at night and when shooting from unusual angles, such as from ground level and extreme heights. I cannot understand why so many DSLR cameras still have fixed displays, or badly designed flip up / down displays with limited adjustment options that get in the way when the camera is tripod mounted or rotated for vertical shooting.

In the studio, while shooting extreme magnification with the lens reverse-mounted, I was amazed by the electronic display's ability to project a bright image, where an optical reflex mirror would have been too dark to frame and focus without adding focusing lights. Strong lights certainly make focusing easier, but many subjects suffer from bright lights – particularly nocturnal creatures – and this often results in stress for the subject, contracted pupils and alarmed, unnatural behaviour.

The GH3 has many wonderful features that I have come to love. This is not intended as a full review, just sharing my thoughts and experience of real life, on the job macro shooting with the GH3 in the field.

Here is a brief summary of features that impressed me most:

Touch to Focus: Touch the display to show a magnified view of the targeted area and set accurate focus with incredible precision on a display that can be rotated into a convenient position, no matter how the camera is mounted.

An electronic shutter that can be triggered wirelessly without any vibration at all and completely silent as an added option.

Four Thirds – the sensor size positioned at the ideal crossover point between obtaining maximum depth of field (or conversely, shallow selective focus) while still providing enough resolution for mainstream print sizes.

Optics: In addition to Panasonic’s very sharp and well built range of lenses, the GH3 can mount just about any lens – current or legacy (via adapters) – including other Micro / Four Thirds lenses, bellows, extension tubes, microscopes, and other dedicated optics.

Auto Focus: The auto focus is super fast and responsive. With the fast f2.8 zoom lens, the camera managed to focus on a native tiger quoll leaping through the air – without focus assist beam – in a noctarium so dim that my eyes could barely see it happening.

Image Stabilisation: The image stabilising system works very well and is a great benefit, especially with the high magnifications encountered with macro and tele lenses.

From point-and-shoot to P/A/S/M The GH3 features Panasonic’s superb iA (intelligent Auto) and other Auto modes that allow even complete beginners to get great point-and-shoot results, but at the same time allows full customisation to suit professional needs and tasks. The menu is easy to navigate and mostly self-explanatory.

Quick Menu: The Q.Menu button provides rapid access to the principal controls without the need to dig into the full Menu. A real time saver that gives power to the user.

Customisable Buttons The GH3 has five hard and two touchscreen buttons that can be customised by the user for instant access to vital controls. No more tedious and frustrating scrolling and scrambling through menu tabs and pages to adapt to fast-changing situations! I tip my hat to Panasonic for thinking of professionals when designing this camera.

Working with the GH3 was a thoroughly pleasant experience. When the day came to send it back, I felt a sense of loss: an important tool in my kit bag had disappeared.

I know I will have to replace it – I’m in the market for a GH3 as soon as it is available…

I have not made mention of the GH3’s class-leading video capabilities. When I get my GH3, I hope to make time to share my experience shooting video and recording audio with the GH3.

In the meantime, full info about the Lumix GH3  system is available on Panasonic’s website.

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