Monday, November 3, 2014

Canon Powershot G7 X Review



Canon, more so than other camera companies, continues to rely on compacts at a time when the industry is shifting upwards away from the encroachment of mobile phones at the bottom of the market. Nikon was once omnipresent with numerous Coolpix iterations, but they didn't have a distinct stand-out brand identity and never captured the enthusiast attention in the way that their DSLRs do. Sony was also in a similar position not too many years ago, but has since made an obvious dash for higher ground by pushing the RX100 line upwards and proliferating the lower end of the NEX/Alpha lines.

Canon, meanwhile, has a bit of a  "mom and pop" presence in the market. Though the compact market has not so much shrunk so much as it has collapsed, Canon has maintained clear lines of differentiation in their compact range... G-type cameras (G1 X Mark II, G16) continue to occupy the top, the SX series for superzoom lovers, the S120 for "higher-end" slim compacts and just about everything else for the budget-concious. Overall, the Canon range is easy the casual shopper to understand, as this product mix offers both breadth and differentiation. To make an expanded range like this work, you need a halo product to anchor it. Even though it is at the top of the heap, the G1 X Mark II does this poorly as it is neither compact nor is it affordable. Though it's shaped like a (very) big compact, it is functionally a DLSR replacement. This is where the G7 X comes in... small, yet capable. The headline features are:

  • 20MP 1"-type BSI sensor (same as RX100M3 and Panasonic FZ1000)
  • 24-100mm equiv. f/1.8-2.8 lens
  • Customizable control dial on lens
  • Flip-up LCD display screen
  • Dedicated exposure compensation dial
  • Wi-Fi with NFC

So if you ever wondered what the RX100 would be like if Canon had built it, wonder no more.  When Sony launches a new product, its inevitably cutting edge, overly gadgety and unashamedly expensive. The G7 X is neither of those three things. Considering that the Sony is on the third iteration and the G7 X sincerely flatters the RX100 concept, its a device that won't win on charm or charisma, but there is something to be said about value. Many people have said that they would love to have a RX100 were it not for the price; the G7 X tests that assumption. At the time of its launch, it is priced less than the RX100M3 and has a longer and brighter lens. The RX100M2 sells for less, but also makes due with a slower aperture lens. On paper, the virtue of the G7 X speaks for itself. However, its never quite that simple.


Build and Design


The G7 X does echo the RX100 in size, but the sense of déjà vu ends when you hold it in your hands. The surface of the metal body is textured like some of the the other Canon compacts, and combined with the generous thumb-rest, the holding comfort is good. Contrast that to the RX100, which has a glass-like front surface. Sony does a decent business selling accessory adhesive grips for the RX100, but the G7 X doesn't need one.


All is not perfect, though. The body is substantially thicker than on the Sony cameras. This actually makes it easier to grasp onto, but just like thick watches, a thicker camera feels less up-market than a thinner camera. Much more to the detriment of the G7 X, though is the placement of the stacked mode/EV compensation dial. Your index finger has to curl over the dial cluster, making the reach to the shutter button more awkward than it ought to be.


The articulating screen is hinged from the top. While this allows for low-angle shots, it doesn't help for trying to shoot over obstacles such as other people's heads in a crowded space. The LCD does flip up 180 degrees for the selfie-inclined. In what would arguably be a bold step for Canon's aesthetics team, the shutter button and mode dial are adorned with a tiny sliver of camera jewellery; both are encircled by a wisp of red chrome at their base, the red peaking out of the recesses of the dials like the brake calipers of a sports car.

...An aside about exposure compensation dials....

Exposure compensation is an important control to have on a modern camera, but the form that it takes should ideally be matched to the capability of the camera. To illustrate a point, look at the extremes of the camera marke: the high end professional DSLR's like the 5D Mark III and all the way at the other extreme at the lowest end of the PowerShot series. If you pick up both cameras you will notice that EV compensation is not a dedicated physical control, but tends to have prominence with more ambient controls such as white balance or ISO. On the professional camera it is a menu button, and consumer cameras it might very well be buried deep in the menus. There's a rational for this. On an entry-level compact, the expected proficiency of the photographer is not that high so advanced photographic functions are given less priority for physical buttons and dials. On the professional DSLR, it is the opposite case; you can't make everything a priority and some buttons much be ed-emphasized. So EV comp is not a priority...but why? Generally speaking, exposure metering is more accurate on advanced cameras and the sensors have wide dynamic range. In other words, if the exposure metering system is doing it's job, then the EV compensation control should be used infrequently.

Somewhere between those extremes lies the area of cameras that cater to enthusiasts, but which also have limited dynamic range. This is where a a dedicated EV comp dial is helpful as it lets the user quickly override the camera's allotment of the more limited dynamic range. They are quite helpful on cameras like the G16, but you could make an argument that a dedicated EV comp wheel on the G7 X isn't needed. The Sony-sourced 20mp BSI sensor has a workable amount of exposure latitude, and on a camera that costs $700 USD, you would expect better exposure accuracy than your typical compact. Yes, the nested mode/EV comp ring looks quite fetching, but one wonders how often the EV comp dial is going to be used and if Canon could have made this portion of the camera easier to wrap your finger around

What is easy to use is the menu system, which remains consistent between the various Canon compact models. This is a strong point for the brand, but for advanced shooters, the RX100M3 offers more fine-tuning and tinkering. If you are comparing the G7 X against the RX100M2, it's not a contest; the Canon wins. The second RX100 pre-dated the unified menu system that the RX1003, A6000 and A7 share and is somewhat more clunky to use.

CIPA rating for battery life for the G7 X is 210 shots per charge with the supplied NB-13L battery. By any measure this is an inadequate amount of battery life to expect from this class of camera. By comparison, the RX100M3 is rated at over 300 shots per charge. However, it is worth remembering that CIPA uses a synthetic test where the flash is fired every second shot; if you are parsimonious with your usage it is possible to achieve longer battery life.

Lens and Autofocus


The front of the camera is occupied by a control ring that makes the G7 X resemble something of a bigger S120. It's a click-type ring that makes an extremely pronounced ratcheting sound when turned. The function of the ring is customizable, with the customization varying depending on the shooting mode.

Here is a comparison of the effective aperture of the G7 X relative to an APS-C camera. Effective aperture is the calculated as the nominal aperture of the lens multiplied by the difference in the length of the diagonal of the sensor. For additional information, DxO's dynamic range scores are included to give a more complete picture of overall camera performance:


Average Effective Aperture Camera Effective Max Wide Aperture Effective Max Long Aperture DXO Landscape (Dynamic Range)





4.1 Canon G7 X 3.2 5.0 12.7
3.3 Panasonic LX100 2.5 4.1 12.5
3.6 Canon G1X Mark II 2.4 4.7 10.8
4.6 Sony A6000 3.5 5.6 13.7

Like the RX100M3, the G7 X fares well against this group of large(ish) sensor cameras. When you take into consideration the combined effect of its sensor size and maximum aperture settings, it will give similar depth of field characteristics to an entry-level DSLR with kit lens. Combine that with DSLR-like dynamic range and it's hard not to see the G7 X as giving a reasonable approximation of the photographic qualities of an older Canon Rebel DSLR, only in a much smaller package.


Because lens optical performance is a complex topic, the objective description of such is beyond the scope of this blog. Though there are many aspects to quantify...resolving power, field curvature, distortion, aberrations, etc... a general sense of a lens’ character can be determined without resorting to lab testing. Over repeated use in varying circumstances and photographic subjects, one does get the impression that the Sony gives a more pleasing rendition  across the focal length range, but this is mostly a subjective impression that may be due to differences in JPEG processing.  At close range and wide angle, the RX100M3 has more field-curvature, but it is still produces a crisp rendition in the center of the image. The differences between the two cameras narrow at longer zoom lengths and subject distances. For most users, the difference won't matter. Certainly, if you had one but not the other, you wouldn't know that there was a difference.

Does the extra focal length of the G7 X matter? In some circumstances yes, but it amounts to taking a step closer to the subject. If you need that last little bit of reach, the G7 X is better, but it falls short of giving you true long-distance shooting. The extra focal length is actually more useful if you think of it from the  perspective of subject compression and isolation.Where the G7 X is going to disappoint is in terms of autofocus reliability. It's purely a conventional contrast-detect system; while just as fast as any camera of its type with still subjects, it isn't as adept with motion tracking.

Image Quality



The following is an ad hoc demonstration of the camera's JPEG output quality through the ISO range. Pay attention to the legibility of the soda bottles for detail retention (or lack thereof) as the ISO value rises, speckling in the broad colour patches for overall image noise, as well as the harshness of the reflections and shadows as dynamic range decreases. These samples are not directly comparable to similar samples found elsewhere in this blog because of variable ambient lighting conditions. Click on images for 100% crop view.

Note: The G1 X Mark II was shot at f/5.6, where as the other two cameras were set at f/4; shot under the same circumstances (center-weighted metering) it gives approximately the same metering as the RX100M3. Curiously, the G7 X meters darker than the other two cameras. The best rendition would actually fall between the two alternatives; the G7 X is ostensibly protecting its highlights but at the expense of some realizable shadow detail. Conversely, the G1 X  Mark II and the RX100M3 are producing a more consistent exposure in this small patch at the center of the image, but the highlights are a tad bit on the brassy end. A good compromise would be to lower the Sony 1/3 EV or to raise the Canon by about the same. Also note that the reds on both Canon's are clipping sooner than on  the Sony; this almost seems like a preoccupation on the part of Canon for their corporate colour.

ISO 125
ISO 200
ISO 400
ISO 800
ISO 1600
ISO 3200
ISO 6400

If you compare the larger Canon to the smaller one, it's not a straightforward case of one being better than the other. At low ISO the G7 X is better by virtue of having more pixels. The BSI sensor that comes from Sony credibly keeps pace with the larger 1.5" sensor made by Canon. However, the G1 X Mark II is better past ISO 800 because of the combined effect of having both larger pixels and a larger overall sensor. The 1" sensor cameras lose definition at ISO 1600 and above due to higher levels of noise reduction. Comparing the Sony against the G7 X, you can also see the benefit of having a slightly sharper lens. The RX100M3 exposure is brighter, but not necessarily more accurate. This has the effect of giving a crisp and bright image, but at the expense of somewhat brassy highlights.

Comparisons


Naturally, the majority of the discussions of the G7 X revolve around how it compares to the Sony RX100M2 and RX100M3. It's also beneficial to examine its place next to its big brother, the G1 X Mark II. Simply put, the G1 X Mark II is large, front-heavy and unwieldy... and the G7 X is not. The saving grace is that the G1 X Mark II exceeds the minimum capabilities of your typical entry level DSLR (when you account for the "effective aperture"), whereas the G7 X just barely meets them. It's not hard to see that the G7X will be the larger volume seller for Canon.

Left to right: Canon G1 X Mark II, G7 X and Sony RX100M3

Compared to the Sony RX100M3, the distinction isn't as clear. The Sony has a deeper menu system, a usable built-in electronic viewfinder and is smaller and more pocket-able. The RX100M3 lens is slighter sharper, but a critical downside is that it's essentially a f/2.8 lens for much of its range. The RX100M3 is only a f/1.8 lens at it's widest setting, and the maximum aperture zooms up to f/2.8 very quickly. The lens on the Canon G7 X is much more progressive, and closes down progressively as you zoom out.

Left to right: Canon G1 X Mark II, G7 X and Sony RX100M3

The biggest distinction between the Sony and the Canon is the price. A more natural competitor for the G7 X may perhaps be the previous-generation RX100M2. This too is not necessarily an easy choice, as the Canon has the faster lens, but the RX100M2 is less expensive. The RX100M2 menu ergonomics also aren't quite in line with the unified menu structure seen on the RX100M3, A7 and A6000, so the difference in usability between it and the G7 X is more pronounced than with the RX100M3.

A third alternative would be the Fujifilm X30, which was also launched at Photokina 2014. The X30 is essentially the thematic opposite of the GX 7; instead of having large-sensor image quality jammed into a small compact body, the X30 is a large compact camera jammed with large-camera ergonomics. In almost every physical way, the X30 is a better camera... tight build quality, clear button layout and better hand-holding ergonomics. it looses out to the RX100 and the G7 X in the sensor department. With the G7 X, you get the benefit of more pixels without much penalty in image noise. If you took these two cameras and merged their personalities, you would likely end up with the Panasonic LX100.

Concluding Thoughts


The G7 X is for lack of a better term, a RX100 made for the masses. The ergonomics are a little less daunting and the pretensions aren't as lofty. However, even though that is the camera that it competes against, it might be more correct to point out that it supersedes the 1/1.7" sensor G16 and S120 compacts. Technology marches on, and what was once upper-level now becomes middle of the road. If you are looking for a second camera to supplement your DSLR the older small-sensor compacts are going to be quite a step back from today's large sensor cameras. The new generation of 1" sensors makes that quality sacrifice more tolerable for enthusiasts shooters.

The danger to this approach is that the price of an advanced compact camera is now pushing dangerously high. The introductory price of the G7 X is significantly more than an entry-level DSLR like the Canon SL1 or Nikon D3300.... it's even more than the T5i or D5200. While it is a marvel that devices like this can exist, it is not healthy for the camera market. If everybody pushes upwards into premium territory, the number of engaged users who can afford these types of cameras will correspondingly grow smaller.


However, if taken on its own merits, the virtues of the G7 X are obvious and immediate. Small size, good sensor and fast lens, and as an important point in challenging times, it isn't the most expensive camera in its category. Ostensibly, these are good qualities to have in a go-anywhere camera.





With thanks to Broadway Camera

3 comments:

  1. I beg to disagree on the exp. compensation dial. By default all cameras only meter for an 18% grey - it is up the photographer to dial in exp.compensation for the scene he visualises ( eg. snow white, or a black cat)
    Hence EV comp. dial is essential for the more advanced user who thinks about what he intends to capture and not simply point and shoot.
    It has nothing to do with compensating for a less efficient nor inaccurate metering system.
    The EOS 5DMkII definitely has a dedicated EV comp.dial it is located on the rear jog wheel dial and is activated ingeniously when you 1/2 press on the exp. shutter button.

    The EV comp. dial is definitely a pro's or advanced user's control who would INSIST on having direct access control and never be in a hidden buried menu- however I appreciate you mentioning about the wedding cake stack of the rotary controls inhibiting ergonomics of the shutter button.
    I would rate it EV comp. dial one of the most used controls besides - ISO, AF/MF, AWB, Metering mode and I bet you would find all these controls with direct access on most if not all advanced true professional camera bodies.

    I would also like to point out that The RX100 menu because of its nature being so extensive - also involves unnecessary deep menu diving ( the downside makes it very complex for many features that this kind of compact class prosumer buyer would have very little use of the majority of the time)
    The Canon embodies the philosophy "less is more" and only embraces menu features that are far more usable 90% of the time with much more direct access immediacy.

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    Replies
    1. I find that EV comp varies according to the capability of the camera. My own philosophy of controls is that physical controls should give precedent to the most commonly used functions... in other words. I'm a bit dogmatic in this regards but if you need to constantly adjust the EV dial, then the exposure meter is doing its job. Yes there are times that you do need override the meter, but my taste is to group EV comp with ambient settings like ISO and WB. My favourite implementation is on the older Panasonic, where the command dial is also a jog button between A/S and EV comp.

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  2. I think on the corollary if you compare Nikon and Canon SLR menu offerings the Nikon systems are much more complex and extensive in my opinion.

    Does this make the Nikon more pro or the better system and the Canon more amateurish ? Yes and No - I guess depending on whether you will make use of it or not; even for the Pro's.
    Nikon no doubt definitely excels in its dedicated advanced flash management features.

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