Every photographer likes to be off work. No good photographer likes to be without a camera. The two are not incompatible, but camera makers conspire to make life difficult, and the most pocketable, fully featured compacts often produce the worst picture quality.
Canon’s G series, and the Powershot Pro models before, have always been made to give the highest quality from a small sensor, in the range of 1/1,8 to 1/2.3. Good lenses, without an extreme zoom range, combine with raw shooting to make the G models first choice for the glove box, handbag or manbag, if not the pocket. They have always been a little chunky for that.
The latest, the G1X, updates the series with a larger sensor format, with a 1.86× focal length factor (compared to Canon APS-C at 1.6×) and 18.7×14mm dimensions, producing a 4:3 image ratio rather than the more conventional 2:3 35mm-like shape. To put that in perspective, the 10-megapixel G12 has a 7.4 × 5.6mm sensor, and the G1X pixel pitch is similar to the EOS 7D, producing 14 megapixels and a usable ISO range of 100 to 12,800. The 28-112mm f/2.8-5.8 equivalent lens has a selectable 8× neutral density filter to help use wide apertures or longer shutter speeds for creative control, but with a range of 60 seconds to 1/4000s, the newcomer is already a match for DSLRs specs.
In the absence of a Canon mirrorless or compact inter-changeable lens APS-C solution, this one camera has to fulfil all the demand for exactly that.
Size isn’t everything
The body is a solid, metal, functional-looking, traditional rangefinder shape in miniature. Despite being a compact, every DSLR function is present. It accepts filters (58mm thread, via an adapter), Canon system flash, including ringlight for close-ups. It has front and rear controllers, eyepiece dioptre correction, front/rear curtain hi-speed and wireless flash sync, exposure compensation dial and physical mode setting dial. Unlike the G12 it does not have a mechanical ISO setting dial, perhaps because a wide range of auto sensitivity can be trusted to be low noise.
Where it differs most is in having power zoom with fingertip control round the shutter release, and adding a complete set of consumer-friendly auto functions based on live view. These include “wink” and “new face” self timers – firing when a selected face is detected to wink one eye, or when a new face enters the frame. Extensive post-processing in-camera is now found in DSLRs too, and with cropping, colour and density adjustments together with Eye-Fi card compatibility and copyright metadata embedding, this has professional uses in the GX1. It’s possible to prepare press‑ready JPEGs for data network phone transmission without needing a computer.
So, when Canon says the camera at its £700 or so retail price is intended for the enthusiast or professional, it has packed it with functions and features intended for the amateur, but these in no way complicate it. They can be ignored completely.
Some will be appreciated, such as in-camera HDR with a number of preset effects based on three-shot bracketing. In-camera panorama stitching can handle as many overlapping views as you want to take. The fixed-zoom, live view focus design has enabled focus bracketing – three shots, three degrees of deviation. And what is called manual focus is not strictly that; the camera performs a final fine-tuning AF on the area you have manually prefocused.
The sequence shooting abilities of the G1X include 4.5fps JPEG bursts, a little worse than 2fps raw sequences, and an interesting mode that captures three or four seconds of video before you take a still (effectively saving the camera’s live view buffer at the moment of still capture). This can be used to create movie-still sequences or the Harry Potter photo frame effect. The movie mode itself is much improved from the G12, with a dedicated movie button, power zoom and AF during video, 1080/24p, but no external mic or control of settings. The four‑stop, dual-mode image stabilisation is effective.
Despite the sensor size, an interlens shutter and electronic first curtain make the G1X almost silent if you turn off sound effects. But with no display of aperture or shutter speed in the optical finder, I managed to get settings like 1/15s at f/13 in bright sun at ISO 100 for a quick movement-blurred portrait of a friend. The sound of the camera gave me no clue that the metering had biased towards the shadows for a two-stop overexposed result, and the lack of any settings display in the finder didn’t remind me that f/13 was set.
Focus range issues
Unfortunately, the raw format option is not available in the auto or scene modes that complete the “consumer” features, only in the more professional P/Av/Tv/M modes. This might not seem important until you realise that the focus range depends on this. In Auto (Green) mode, the full range of 20cm to infinity (wide) or 85cm to infinity (tele) is enabled. In PASM, there is no continuous option; you must use the rear LCD screen and the Focus range (left hand), press on the rear controller to select between close autofocus (20-70cm at 24mm, 85cm-1.6m at 112mm), distant autofocus (40cm to infinity at 24mm, 1.3m to infinity at 112mm), and MF (which covers the full range).
This is not a trivial detail. Using a close-up range setting to get closer than 1.3m at the long end of the lens is rarely encountered in full-scale DSLR lenses, let alone compacts. The 20cm wide-angle closest focus is not impressive; many compact models focus to within a finger or two of the lens, but the tele end close focus is restricting, and the need to switch between two ranges when shooting raw is cumbersome.
Most JPEG auto scene modes can use the full focus range, except two: Sports Action, and Kids & Pets. While limiting close focus to 1m (wide) or 1.3m (tele) is sensible for good AF in sports shooting, anyone with kids or pets will know they do not respect invisible barriers.
It gets tricky when you use the optical viewfinder. Part of the appeal of the G1X is the zoom optical finder, though this is predictably inaccurate (77 percent view), suffers parallax at closer distances and is partly obscured by the camera’s own lens at wide angle. There is no distance display, and no information at all in the finder. If you use the rear LCD screen (100 percent view), you can control the ranges, and see the out-of-focus result if you are incorrectly set. But you can’t tell which range is set with the screen reversed for optical finder shooting, and the sound beep that indicates focus confirm is exactly the same as the beep that means “focus failure warning” (it appears with a yellow frame and exclamation mark on the screen, as well as a blurred image). You can therefore be shooting out-of-focus frames all too easily as 1.3m is a considerable distance from the camera by today’s standards.
With the camera in P/Av/Tv/M modes, set to close-up with the LCD screen turned to face the body, the close range is extended to infinity just like shooting JPEGs. So, if you want to use the optical finder only, don’t set the Mountain (distant range) symbol beforehand, set the Flower (close range) option and you’ll actually get the full range.
It will not improve the size or accuracy of the zoom finder. You always get what you compose in the shot, but at close range it can be a small off-centre part of the 14 megapixels. If ever there was an argument for Sony’s EVF models or Fujifilm’s Hybrid EVF, the G1X makes it, as so much information and control is sacrificed by using the optical finder alone.
Clearly, Canon has had to make some compromises to create such a compact lens, equivalent to an 18-75mm f/2.8-5.8 on an APS mirrorless body. But it has not compromised optical quality. There is almost nothing to choose between full aperture and any other setting at the 15.1mm wide angle. Geometry and illumination appear to be better than any DSLR kit lens. DPP software replicates in-camera JPEGs, so full assessment of raw files is not possible yet. That will come when Adobe Camera Raw is able to interpret the 14-bit .CR2 data.
This plaque is just over one foot diamater. With the lens set to 40mm (75mm equivalent) using the optical viewfinder, the shot was framed as shown by the yellow line. The image captured extends well beyond this, as seen, and off-centre. Closer subjects, and wide angles on the lens, produce an even bigger difference. However, you do not risk cut-off heads as the viewfinder always frames well inside the captured area. Image © David Kilpatrick.
I prefer to reverse the rear screen and rely entirely on the viewfinder if it’s practical. I’m now used to doing this with cameras that display vital information in the finder, removing the need to use the rear screen to adjust or confirm settings. But this is not possible with the G1X.
With the rear screen in viewing position, all the rear controls are active. They are packed tightly and fill the right-hand end where my thumb sits to grip the camera, and I found controls and functions operated by accident. Reversing the screen locks the controls, but it locks out movie shooting – you cannot use the optical finder to shoot at eye position unless the rear screen is active.
The sheer image quality was not enough to compensate for limited zoom range, modest maximum aperture, tricky dual-range focusing with poor close range limits, and an inaccurate optical finder. I feel this camera would be far better with pure retro controls, dials for the shutter speed range and aperture, ISO and override. I’d be happy with an 85 percent view non-zooming optical finder using a parallax compensated brightline. The lens has a unique “step zoom” function letting you set 28mm, 35mm, 50mm, 85mm, 100mm and 112mm fixed lengths, which could easily have been linked to a Leica-style finder. Having the optical finder actually zoom with the lens is not that important when you can’t shoot movies that way.
Canon has a full accessory range for the G1X, including a bayonet mount petal lens hood. The lens is flare-resistant, and this hood would obscure even more of the optical finder. You can’t fit a protective filter, the detchable lanyard-secured lens cap engages ribbing not a screw thread. If you use the 58mm filter adapter, the lens cap won’t fit and nor will the lens hood.
The G1X is a brilliant concept marred by lack of attention to ergonomic and practical detail. It seems to have been built by engineers, not photographers. The compulsion to retain familiar Canon interface features and functions has overridden the chance to design a far better control and information feedback layout. Why not put a small mono LCD window on the reverse side of the colour LCD to show just the shutter speed, aperture, ISO, battery life, shots remaining, focal length and focus distance? There might not be room for an LCD on the top plate, but there is certainly room for one on the back of the reversed three-inch rear-screen assembly.
The G1X is the highest image quality professional fixed-zoom compact from any maker. But it deserves to be reworked as a G2X with better controls and a more accurate optical finder with vital settings and shooting information displayed. At the price, there are small, lightweight Micro Four Thirds, Sony NEX, Samsung NX and Ricoh GRX alternatives offering large sensors, better viewing choices, and ergonomics. The market will have the last say though – and the Canon logo is the winning design factor the others are missing.
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