Canon Hits a Superzoom Home Run
A few points of information first.
This is my first review of a Canon product in years. Why is this the case, when I used to be a Canon user and a regular reviewer of Canon products?
Two reasons; Canon’s product offerings became boring several years ago, with little in the way of technical innovation and even less by way of truly interesting new products. Year after year it felt as is I was reviewing the latest Toyota Corolla, over and over and over again.
Also, whereas I have tried to maintain good relationships with all manufacturers, for reasons that remain opaque to me Canon decided at some point to freeze me out. No returned phone calls or e-mails, and no more review samples. Not even a press release for quite a few years now.
I can take a hint. If you don’t like me, then there’s nothing to be done about it. So, I simply moved on and now test and use products from companies who do appreciate dealing with me… which frankly is almost every other camera maker on the planet, except for Canon.
Finally, I am quite partial to shooting with long lenses. My recent article titled Make it Long, explains this penchant.
Now – on with the show.
Entering the Goldilocks Zone
The Canon G3X can’t be summarized in a single sentence or even paragraph. No contemporary cameras can. These are not only complicated devices but they represent compromises of various sorts in terms of price, size, features and intended application. To get the full measure of a new cameras, such as the G3X requires placing all of these variables in context.
This camera falls into the so-called category of “Superzoom”. Such cameras are fixed lens compacts, but with focal lengths of 400mm equivalent, or longer; sometimes out to 1200mm, and even 2000mm equivalent in the case of the Nikon P900 (a bridge too far in my opinion). What makes such extreme focal lengths possible is that these cameras use very small sensors, typically the 1/2.3″ type.
I have tested and used many such cameras over the years because I enjoy shooting with long lenses. But they always come up lacking, and I quickly give up on them. Such tiny sensors simply can’t provide the image quality that I’m looking for. They are just fine for the typical vacationer’s travel pics, but not for a serious photographer who makes large exhibition quality prints and who wants print-publication quality images.
What differentiates the Canon G3X is that it has a so-called 1″ sensor. This is the same Sony-sourced sensor as used in the Sony RX10 and Panasonic FZ1000, not to mention the Sony RX100 III. (Links are to reviews of these cameras which can be found on this site).
In my opinion, this is the smallest sensor size that still yields professional quality results, at least at low to moderate ISOs. The particular sensor used in the new G3X, and these other Sony and Panasonic cameras have been highly regarded, both by me and numerous other reviewers during the past year that it has been on the market.
It is worth noting that while all three companies are using the same sensor, the image processing engine used by each of these makers is different, and thus how these cameras perform in terms of dynamic range, high ISO and other parameters will naturally differ.
I will mention here as well, that the sensor used in the just-shipping Sony RX100 IV and RX10 II is an evolution of this design and differs primarily in its “stacked” architecture, which allows for much faster data throughput. My guess is that Sony won’t provide Panasonic, Canon or anyone else with this new design for at least another year, taking advantage of the new stacked sensor’s superior throughput for its own camera division first.
The reason why I titled this section the Goldilocks Zone is because this current 1″ sensor provides camera makers with a size that allows for small camera size combined with excellent image quality, mainly giving up—if anything—a bit to larger sensors when it comes to very high ISO performance.
This smaller sensor can allow not only for smaller camera bodies, but also for smaller and faster, or smaller and longer focal length designs. Case in point is the Sony RX10 and Panasonic FZ1000. Sony has gone for fast aperture across the focal range, with a constant f/2.8 24-200mm equivalent design. Panasonic decided to go for longer reach, offering a variable f/2.8–f/4 aperture range and 25-400mm equivalent focal length.
Canon took the decision to go for even longer reach, offering with the new G3X a variable aperture range of f/2.8–f/5.6, but a focal range of 24-600mm equivalent. It should be noted though that f/2.8 is only available at the wide end of the range, and the lens quickly starts being limited to f/4 over the mid-range focal lengths. In fact another tester has found that “The Canon G3X slows down to f4 by 46mm and then to f5.6 by 164mm“.
It’s fascinating to see the set of compromises that each company made. Maximum focal length of 200mm for the Sony, but at f/2.8. Maximum of 400mm for the Panasonic, but at f/4, and a maximum of 600mm for the Canon, but at f/5.6. All three cameras are f/2.8 at their widest aperture, which is either 24mm or 25mm equivalent focal lengths.
Body and Build
I’m not going to belabor all of the camera’s details. These are available from Canon’s web site and other places online. My subjective impressions, and the camera’s major features include…
– a well built, weather resistant, metal alloy body that fits nicely in the hand
– this camera is smaller and lighter than the competition
– controls and user interface that are similar to Canon DSLRs… straightforward
– a sensor that has a DxO score (amazingly) the same as Canon’s latest mid-range DSLRs, such as the EOS 750D (based on the Canon G7X which uses the same sensor and processor)
– a DxO sensor score that tops other 1″ sensor cameras from Sony, Nikon and Panasonic, even those that use the same sensor
– articulated LCD rear touch screen
– built-in 3 stop ND filter
– common sized Canon battery with inexpensive generics available
– a 24-600mm f/2.8 – f/5.6 equivalent lens of exceptional quality
The G3X’s USP
In marketing terms, a Unique Selling Proposition (USP) is something that gives one product an edge over others. For the G3X it’s its 25X focal range; a 24–600mm equivalent in a fixed lens body that can be held in the palm of one’s hand and carried in a coat pocket.
Because of its use of a first rate sensor, excellent build quality, and a familiar first-rate user interface, the camera will have a strong appeal to photographers who want and need a long reach combined with publication-quality imaging capability.
The Canon lacks the high-speed shooting capability of the new Sony RX10II and the 4K video capability of that camera as well as the Panasonic FZ1000. The trade-off is longer reach (much longer as against the Sony), as well as smaller size and lower weight.
The EVF Issue
From a marketing point of view the G3X loses to both the RX10 models and the FZ1000 in that it doesn’t have a built-in EVF. I assume that the reason for this decision on Canon’s part was to keep the size of the camera as small as possible. Instead, there is an optional accessory EVF, the Canon EVF-DC1. This is quite a good EVF with high resolution and a high eye-point, as well as eye detection. It can also be articulated upward.
Of course, the addition of it adds bulk and expense. At USD $250, together with the G3X itself at $1,000, the total comes to $1,250, quite a bit more than the Panasonic FX1000 at $800, and just a tad less than the new Sony RX10 II at $1,300.
If you’re someone who doesn’t want or need an EVF, then the math is simple. If you do, then choosing the G3X becomes a tougher decision. The Panasonic is a lot less expensive, though its lens and image quality isn’t quite up to the quality of the G3X, and the build quality of the camera itself isn’t either.
A choice between the G3X and the Sony RX10 II comes down to whether 4K video and a faster shooting rate trumps lower weight and bulk and a much longer lens reach. The 600mm vs 200mm equivalent reach is the main issue. The question becomes: What are your particular needs?
Filter & Lens Hood
The G3X’s lens does not have a filter thread. Instead, Canon sells an accessory lens shade called the Canon Lens Hood & Filter Adapter Kit for PowerShot G3 for about $50. This provides not only some flare protection but also allows for the mounting of 67mm filters. The shade and filter adaptor work as a pair.
Comparison #1 – Canon G3X Vs. Sony A7II and Tamron 150-600mm
I enjoy doing comparisons when they’re simply for my own edification. I set them up, I shoot, I look at the screen and make prints, then make my determination and move on.
I dislike publishing these comparisons because someone will always ask…”Why didn’t you do it this way…” or “… your test is wrong because…“. What a pain.
So, with that in mind my first test was to see how the G3X would stack up against the Sony A7MII using the Tamron 150-600mm. I had used this combination in Antarctica in January, 2015 and was very pleased with the results. Kevin Raber also has this lens and is similarly happy with its performance. It is a beast though when it comes to size and weight. Not exactly pocketable, while the G3X can indeed fit in a coat pocket or on a wrist strap.
Sony A7II with Tamron 150-600mm @ 600mm ///// Canon G3X @ 600mm
The first pair above shows the full frame shot. Sony left; Canon right.
This rooftop is about a quarter mile from the balcony where I was standing. (Yes, I measured the distance with my car). The second frame is of these images magnified on-screen to 100%.
To my great astonishment, the G3X shows slightly higher resolution. Whether this is attributable to the smaller pixel pitch of the 1″ sensor on the G3X, or that its lens is sharper is unknown. The takeaway though is that at 600mm (where both zooms will be used a lot of the time), the new small Canon actually outperforms the Sony / Tamron combination. Taking into consideration price, size and weight this is a remarkable result and will cause me to give some serious consideration to what I carry with me on my next shoot that requires a very long lens.
Comparison #2 – Canon G3X Vs. Sony A7II and Sony 70-200mm f/4 G lens
Canon G3x // Sony A7II with Sony G 70-200mm f/4 100% Magnification
In this next comparison, I wanted to see how the Canon would perform at a shorter focal length, and also against a medium-long lens of top reputation, the Sony 70-200mm f/4 G.
Above we see a 100% onscreen view with the Canon on the left and the Sony on the right. In this case the results are close, but the Sony 70-200mm combo gets the win by a small margin. There is slightly more resolution to be seen when doing a side-by-side comparison at 100%, but frankly, on a 13X19″ print there’s little to choose between them. Again, this is a quite remarkable performance from the new small Canon.
Comparison #3 – Canon G3X Vs. a Camera With a 1/2.3″ Sized Sensor
In an earlier paragraph, I wrote about small sensor cameras with long reach lenses…
I have tested, and used, many such cameras over the years, because I enjoy shooting with long lenses. But they always come up lacking, because such tiny sensors simply can’t provide the image quality that I’m looking for. They are just fine for the typical vacationer’s travel pics, but not for a serious photographer who makes large exhibition quality prints and who wants print publication quality images.
I have available to me a current model camera of just this type, one with a 1/2.3″ sensor, and a zoom range that even goes beyond that of the G3X.
I doubt that I even need to mention which one is which in the above 100% screen grab. The files are slightly different in size because of the different sensor sizes and resolutions, but this will give you the idea. Image quality from cameras with 1/2.3″ sized sensor just can’t compare to one with a 1″ sensor such as that in the G3X, and that isn’t even taking into account the truly exceptional lens quality of the new Canon or the larger sensor’s higher ISO capability. End of discussion.
I find the advances in sensor design and image processing circuitry over the past decade quite remarkable. It wasn’t that long ago than a Full Frame 35mm sensor was praised for producing clean ISO 400 files. Now a 1″ sensor, little more than 1/3rd the size (0.37X) produces comparable image quality at ISO 1600.
The Good and The Bad
I found the Canon G3X’s image quality to be very good indeed. Surprisingly so. The lens is first rate. It does show some vignetting, but almost no CA through most of the range. Resolution is excellent even wide open (which it needs to be a lot of the time to avoid diffraction limitation) though naturally corners are usually a bit softer than the center.
ISO speeds up to and including 1600 are very good and need no assistance in post processing. ISO 3200 is usable, while 6400 is the limit with some work and compromises, but its there if needed. 12,800 is not acceptable in anything above small web use.
Stabilization works well. The camera is described as having 5 Axis Stabilization. This phrase is in vogue among cameras which have sensor based stabilization. The G3X does not. It has traditional Optical Stabilization on three axis with the other two apparently being digital in nature. Slightly disingenuous on Canon’s part, in my opinion.
One can have a live histogram on-screen, but there are no blinkies or zebras. It’s hard to imagine why Canon left out this important feature.
Shooting rates are reasonably fast with JPGs, but quite slow with raws. Canon really needs to put a faster processor in this camera.
The G3X is loaded with tons of features aimed at the amateur user; things like Smiling Baby mode and all kinds of special effects. Some are even useful, such a face recognition and tracking. It’s all fine, and of course the unneeded ones can be ignored.
The tripod socket is off center, but interestingly has a second pin hole for use with video tripod plates. The reason why it’s not centered is because that’s where the lens and sensor lie. But, this means that any quick-release plate needs to be removed when removing SD card or battery
I was pleased to note that the card and battery door on the base is a solid design, unlike on so many cameras where companies cheap-out and have thin plastic covers. But, having the card in the base is not my favorite design, for the reason just mentioned.
The G3X is a disappointment in the video department. The rest of the industry has firmly moved to 4K at 100 Mbps in most new cameras, especially those at the $1,000 price point and above, yet the Canon only does HD at 35Mbps. It can shoot at 60P though.
The above video is a short clip that shows a concern that I have with the camera’s autofocus – at longer focal lengths (which is this camera’s raison d’etre), it tends to hunt all too easily. One is better off locking focus if possible.
These shots were taken hand-held at between 400mm and 600mm equivalence. Stability is pretty good. No additional stabilization or grading was done in post.
In summary, video from the G3X is “OK“, but unremarkable.
The Two Faces of The GX3
Coming out, as it has, at the same time as the Sony RX10II, the Canon G3X is handicapped in several ways. With the likely necessary accessory EVF for most photographers, these cameras cost about the same, but the Sony offers much faster shooting speeds, 4K video, and a faster aperture. The Canon’s only trump is its 600mm reach, along with slightly smaller size.
Against the Panasonic FZ1000 the G3X fares even less well. It is much more expensive than the Panasonic though it does get more from the same sensor and has a superior performing lens, not to mention somewhat greater reach.
In the final analysis, I believe that Canon are “hiding their light under a bushel“, as the old British saying has it. For someone looking for pro-level image quality in a moderately sized camera with a reach out to 600mm equivalence, nothing can touch the G3X. If long reach isn’t needed then the Sony RX10II is likely a better choice, and if lower price is required then the FZ1000 will be found to be significantly less expensive.
It’s going to take a sophisticated shopper who does their research and who knows exactly what they need to appreciate and choose the G3X. It’s in a tough neighbourhood, and Canon doesn’t seem to be telling this camera’s story well enough to rise above the chatter about Sony’s sexy new offering.
More’s the pity, because the G3X is a terrific camera that promises to solve some shooting needs in a unique way.
Bottom line – I bought one, and it now will be part of my travel kit when I anticipate needing a long lens on the road.