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Canon G1 X Field Report

The Art of the Compromise

The old saying goes... You can't fight city hall. This is true as well for the laws of physics as they apply to camera design. As photographers we all want small size and light weight, but want this to be combined with high image quality, long zoom range and wide apertures. Why shouldn't we? But, the art of the compromise is needed when companies actually sit down to design new cameras, because many of these requirements are mutually exclusive.

With the new Canon G1X, which just started shipping in early March, 2012, Canon has provided us with their latest interpretation of the serious photographer's pocket camera. Let's see how well they succeeded.

Sidebar

Just a few months ago when I reviewed the Panasonic GX1 I joked about the number of new cameras with X in their names. This then included the Leica X1, Canon 1DX, Samsung NX200, Fujifilm X-10, Ricoh GXR, Casio EX15, Olympus XZ1, Sigma DP2X, Sony HX9V – and that's with just one model from each company. Since then, in addition to the Panasonic GX1 and the new Panasonic X series lenses we have had the Fuji X1 Pro and now the Canon G1X. 

For some reason the camera industry has embraced the letter X of late, but really guys... having both Panasonic and Canon with almost identical cameras called GX1 and G1X, while Fuji also uses X1, but with Pro added, is just plain nuts. Stop the madness!

Ps: This is my excuse for any typos you may read on these pages. Please don't write to me if I call Canon's new camera a GX1 instead of a G1X. Or is it the other way round? I give up.

Entering the Church. Atotonilco, Mexico. March, 2012
Canon G1X @ ISO 100

Overview

The Canon G1X looks similar to Canon's previous G series cameras, though it is larger in every dimension. My G11 review from 2009 is found here and might be helpful in understanding the previous generation of small sensor G series Canons. This increase in body size is caused by the G1X's most significant attribute, an almost APS-C sized sensor, at 18.7 x 14mm. This is 6X the size of the sensor in the G11 and most other compact cameras, and is slightly larger than Micro Four Thirds. 

Of course the G1X isn't the first fixed lens camera with a large sensor. But it is the first from Canon, and it is the first of the current generation with a zoom lens. Cameras such as the Leica X1, Sigma DP series and the like have large sensors, but only fixed focal length lenses. 

Flashback

The G1X isn't the first large sensor camera with a fixed zoom lens. Back in 2005 Sony offered the DCS-R1, a trail-blazing camera that had a huge following at the time, but which regretably Sony never followed up on. Just for fun, here's a brief comparison of the GX1 and the R1's basic specs...

 
Canon GX1 – 2012
Sony R1 – 2005
Sensor Size
18.7 x 14mm
21.5 X 14.4mm
Resolution
14.3 Megapixels
10.3 Megapixels
Lens
28-112mm equiv - 4X
24-120mm equiv - 5X
Aperture 
f/2.8 - f/5.8
f/2.8 - f/4.8
Weight
534g
995g
Viewfinder
Optical
EVF
Video
1920X1080 24fps
NONE
Built-In Flash
Yes
Yes
ISO Range
100 - 12800
160 - 3200

Fascinating, isn't it. Seven years is a long time, especially in the contemporary photographic industry. But, that's how long it's been since the last large (APS-C) sized sensor camera with fixed zoom lens. Of course these two cameras are wildly different in size, with the R1 coming in at almost double the weight of the GX1, and no one ever accused it of being pocket sized; even a large coat pocket, which the Canon certainly is.


Handling and Features

Among the Cactus. Mineral de Pozos, Mexico. March, 2012
Canon G1X @ ISO 640

Build Quality

The G1X is a chunky camera. It feels solid and well built, and most of the controls have a positive feel. The mode dial and the exposure compensation dial have heavy click stops and are unlikely to be accidentally mis-set. The front control wheel is similarly tight, though the rear D ring wheel is lighter and a bit more "plasticky". 

Control and menu layout is in the traditional Canon manner, and anyone who has used a Canon camera in the past will likely find it easy to familiarize themselves with its features and functions without even opening the manual (PDF only).

The front grip provides a solid grip for anyone with normal-sized hands, and there is a rubberized thumb rest as well.

In horizontal shooting this falls nicely to hand, but when the camera is held for a vertical shot ones thumb lands instead on the Movie button. After two weeks of use I have an awesome collection of accidental vertical movie clips that I can show you.

The zoom control is fly-by-wire, and like all such lever-activated controls works in discrete steps, making precise focal length selection impossible. There is a knurled ring around the lens that provides a firm and comfortable grip, but it doesn't do anything. I would have been much happier if it was a zoom control. The ring is removable so that a standard filter holder can be attached, and likely some third-party accessories as well.

The Lens

The camera features a fixed 4X range zoom lens; 15.1 – 60.5mm, which is equivalent to 28–112mm in coverage in full-frame terms. The aperture is a reasonable f/2.8 at the wide end, but a slow f/5.8 at the long end of its range. The lens features Canon's Image Stabilization, which is quite effective.

I see little in the way of objectionable artifacts. The whole optical / sensor chain seems well integrated, and I don't think that the type of user that is likely to acquire this camera will find much to criticise. I did no objective testing – simply several hundred frames in a wide variety of real-world situations over a period of two weeks. After making a dozen 13X19" prints on an Epson 3880, and viewing images on a 27" Cinemadisplay, results show little to be disappointed in and much to like about the camera's optical performance.

Nested Doorways. Mineral de Pozos, Mexico. March, 2012
Canon G1X @ ISO 160

The Sensor

Based on the DxOMark test results (see below) the G1X performs in-between the Panasonic GX1 and the Sony NEX 5n. This is right in line with their sensor size, Micro Four Thirds being somewhat smaller and APS-C being somewhat larger. Not that sensor size is the only criteria to use in judging overall image quality, but it does track comparative IQ performance in this instance.

I did not do much low light shooting with the G1X. It just isn't a camera that I find suitable for this use. The lens is far too slow, except at its widest, and working in low light conditions with a bright LCD is counter productive to be unobtrusive. I would much prefer an EVF for this, and the camera's tiny optical window just isn't up to the task, especially in poor light.

The LCD

The rear LCD is a 3" 922K dot and typical of what one finds these days on many cameras. I have a problem with it though. While it is articulated, it is the type of design that folds outwards to the left as well as inwards for screen protection. This means that it is good for taking self portraits and group shots, since it can be seen from the front, but if used for low or high angle shooting it needs to be extended outwards, and thus doubles the width (and obtrusiveness) or the camera. I much prefer the tilting design that some other makers offer where the LCD is hinged at the top and/or center,  and folds outwards to the rear. This makes low level and unobtrusive shooting much easier while keeping the camera low profile

The Viewfinder

Probably the less said about the G1X's viewfinder, the better. It is simply a joke in the context of 2012 cameras. It's a simple optical tunnel viewfinder of small size and with no information (as well as having much of the image blocked by the lens). I suppose that it's better than nothing, but not by much.

With Panasonic, Olympus and Sony able to put high-res EVFs in cameras that are even smaller than the G1X, sticking with a toy-like optical viewfinder seems an odd choice for the world's largest camera company and in a not inexpensive camera aimed at the enthusiast market.

Video

When I first read about the G1X I was excited to note that it has a built-in ND filter. Though not that significant for still photography (you can get shallow DOF by simply raising the shutter speed in most situations) for video shutter speeds need to be low to avoid stuttering, and so I had high hopes for the camera's video capabilities.

Sadly, the G1X can only shoot video in what is essentially a fully automatic mode, without the ability to manually control aperture and shutter speed. This is a shame really, since increasingly camera makers are giving their still cameras greater manual control over video exposure settings. Not on the Canon G1X though. 

Battery Life

A freshly charged battery produced 210 exposures over a two day period, with a few minutes of video and occasional image review. Ambient temperatures were in the high 20's Celsius (80's F). This is less than spec, but not that bad. Anyone shooting more than casually should definitely consider purchasing a second battery.


DxO Mark Comparisons

The above is a comparison chart from DxOMark that shows test results for the Canon G1x vs. the Panasonic GX1 and Sony NEX-5n. I have chosen these other two cameras because, though they have interchangeable lenses vs a fixed lens, they are likely the cameras that someone looking for a pocket-able APS-C sized sensor camera will consider. As this is being written, in the US the Canon G1X is $799,  the Panasonic GX1 with Vario 14-42mm lens is also $799, and the Sony 5n with 18-55mm lens is $699.

DxO Mark sensor tests can be controversial, and do not always reflect what one sees in real-world images. But, the numbers speak for themselves. 


Image Quality

One Way Bar. San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. March, 2012
Canon G1X @ ISO 100

Overall I was very pleased with image quality from the new G. Because of the use of a large sensor IQ is better than any other fixed zoom lens compact that I'm familar with. Noise is essentially non-existant except in the deepest shadows up to around ISO 800, and ISO 1600 is quite usable even for large prints, if properly exposed.

Shooting in raw and processing in Lightroom 4 I saw little to disappoint. I did not shoot in JPG, or use any of the camera's JPG related picture modes, so I can't really comment on them.


In Use and Conclusions

Ruins #6 Mineral de Pozos, Mexico. March, 2012
Canon G1X @ ISO 100

This is a difficult camera to summarize. How one perceives it very much depends on one's particular needs and perspective. So, what I'm about to say, in summary, is that it's a pretty good camera, but I don't particularlycare for it. Here's why.

The G1X is a hermaphrodite – part one thing and part another. It has the image quality characteristics of a large sensor camera (because it has one, of course), but also the limitations of a so-called point and shoot (fixed lens, jittery aperture, fixed step electric zoom). It has the bulk and weight of a compact system camera, but lacks interchangeable lenses and either a built-in or accessory EVF.

Consequently I find that the Canon G1X falls between the cracks. For the $800 which the camera commands (in the U.S.) one can purchase an entry level DSLR or a Compact System Camera with kit lens. Canon's own T3i is one example, though it's bulkier, while various CSC's from Panasonic, Sony, and Olympus all offer smaller size and lighter weight along with interchangeable lenses and superior (though optional) viewfinders.

But, don't misunderstand. There's a lot to like about the G1X. It's well built and has very good image quality. But at its heart it's still a point-and-shoot style camera with all the limitations and foibles that this entails. So, unless one is a Canon G series aficionado, and wants the latest and greatest of that breed, I find it hard to recommend the G1X over any number of other cameras in its price range.


Sidebar Commentary


Prehispanic. Mineral de Pozos, Mexico. March, 2012
Canon G1X @ ISO 400

I know that this is going to get me into trouble (so what else is new?), but it needs to be said. Over the past few years Canon has increasingly become the Toyota of the camera industry. By this I mean – the biggest, but also the most conservative. Like Toyota, Canon makes quality products and it competes successfully in almost every segment that it chooses to. But, like Toyota its products usually fail to excite.

Now, excitement isn't what one should necessarily look for in a camera, since for serious photographers these are tools, not toys. But, let's be realistic and also honest. This is an era in the history of photography which is seeing explosive change, with new technologies and developments arriving at a ferocious rate. Canon though seems to be leaving much of this to their competitors to explore. Mirrorless cameras, high resolution electronic viewfinders, and all the advantages of smaller, lighter cameras with smaller and lighter lenses seems not to interest Canon at this time.

Fine. But offerings like the G1X, which are neither fish nor fowl, only serve to underline that Canon seems to have lost some of its mojo. Nikon's revival over the past five years has been nothing short of remarkable, and Sony is beginning to hit its stride. Sony is a fierce competitor and technology innovator in any market that they choose to enter, and the prosumer camera market is definitely centered in their sights. Fujifilm has developed a new and exciting niche and looks to become a major new force in the enthusiast marketplace. Panasonic and Olympus are continiously innovating in the mirrorless segment, and sales figures show that along with products from Sony and Samsung mirrorless is taking significant market-share, both at the low and mid ends of the market.

Can Canon continue to be content to produce warmed-over versions of last year's DSLRs, ignore the mirrorless segment, and produce compromised crossover products such as the G1X? I sincerely hope not, because they are a great company which has hugely contributed to the photographic industry over the years. It's just that at the moment the still camera division at Canon seems stuck in about 2005. It took a palace revolt that same year at Nikon to give that company back its mojo. Will the same be required at Canon in 2012?

Thanks Henrys!

A special word of thanks to Henry's, a leading Canadian photographic retailer, who were kind enough to provide me with a G1X for testing.

March, 2011

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Concepts: Camera, Digital single-lens reflex camera, Single-lens reflex camera, Zoom lens, Digital camera, Photography, Canon

Entities: Canon, Panasonic, Olympus, Fujifilm, Samsung, DxOMark, Nikon, Henry, Casio, Toyota, U.S., zoom lens, JPG, DSLR, Michael Reichmann, pocket camera, DSLRs

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