Review: The Canon G1X Mark III, an impulse buy

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I picked one of these up on a recent trip to Japan (for some reason, none were available locally). Though Japan is one of the few places where the larger stores have virtually all models of camera on demo/display, with batteries and storage and lenses and in essence ready to play with to your heart’s content – that tells you very little about how something will perform in the field, in practice. Motivations? I was seduced on impulse by the spec sheet.

Disclosure note: I currently work for Hasselblad as Chief of Strategy, which means I cannot objectively comment on or review anything that might be competition. But since we don’t make a consumer level APS-C compact, there’s little conflict of interest here: I too am simply looking for the perfect pocket tool as much as the next photographer. As small as the X1D is – for medium format – it’s not exactly pocketable.

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The Canon G1X Mark III in ready-to-go configuration is probably the smallest complete APSC camera I can think of that has anything other than a fixed lens. The Ricoh GR series and Fuji X70 are smaller, but somewhat more limited (or not really, as it turns out). It has a 24MP hybrid sensor with PDAF photosites covering most of its surface area capable of shooting at 9fps with AE and AF locked, or 7fps with tracking – plus a stabilized 24-70/2.8-5.6 equivalent lens. There’s a tilt/swivel touch LCD and a 2.36m-dot EVF.

The body is solidly built and purportedly weather sealed, has comfortable ergonomics, and many customizable control points including three dials, a shortcut menu, and several buttons. There’s a physical mode dial and dedicated exposure compensation dial, plus the LCD can be used as an AF point trackpad when using the EVF. It has both a flash and a hotshoe, wifi, and a leaf shutter for full sync at all speeds – plus an electronic shutter that takes over when you need even higher speeds. The lens has a built in ND filter. In short: Canon has ticked almost every single box on the spec sheet other than 4K video – and simultaneously made it possible.

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I think it’s easy to see why any photographer would be tempted: several years ago, we would have killed for something like this in the arsenal (or pocket). I’m reminded that I did plenty of work I liked with the original and even more limited Sony RX100 and Olympus E-M5 with Panasonic 14-42 power zoom pancake. But somehow…the little Canon didn’t really do it for me. I strongly suspect it’s a case of ‘it’s me, not you, Jane’ – let me explain why.

In all fairness, I should really start with the good bits – of which there are many. The sensor, when used within limitations and exposed properly, is pretty much state of the art for APSC – it’s every bit as good as the other 24MP APSC DSLR competition. This is to say at base ISO, there’s a lot of usable dynamic range (perhaps 13-13.5 stops or so) and a decent amount of recoverability, but this drops off pretty quickly above base. If care is taken with exposure, even the upper sensitive can be decent. However, one has to be careful though as the previews and LCD are not really representative of information in the file, even with JPEG parameter adjustment, the meter seems to be a little conservative most – but not all – of the time (perhaps biased towards JPEG output) – and there’s no live overexposure warning. The sensor doesn’t feel ISO-invariant – there’s definitely some penalty for underexposing and pushing afterwards, too. Noise also seems to be very sensitive to color temperature and overall luminance level: for ambient daylight 5000-6000K, you can shoot even at 6400 without too much worry. But in strongly shifted light (say LED or fluor at night) – you might even start to find 1250 objectionable. There’s also fine banding visible in pushed shadows, even at base ISO.

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At 100%, the whole image is a mushy mess – and only at ISO 2500.

I think the two most impressive aspects of the camera are what I think of as acquisition and capture speed: AF is really lightning fast and very accurate thanks to PDAF; probably the fastest I’ve yet used (and that includes the Olympus E-M1 Mark II, and a brief experience with the Panasonic G9, reviewed here recently by Robin. It will track moving objects quite well, too – with much more certainty and accuracy than you’d expect from a camera of this type. LCD lag is minimal, though sometimes the exposure appears to take some time to ‘catch up’ if moving between scenes of vastly different brightness. Burst speed – at up to 9fps at full quality – is really fast, as is write and playback.

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So it’s all the more frustrating when I have to say that overall, this is a very slow camera in practical use. Problem one: there’s a small and fiddly lens cap that must be removed, and unlike a larger camera that goes around your neck or over your shoulder, you put this one back on between shots since it goes into your pocket. Problem two: lens extension time is okay, but not fast – about 2-3 seconds. Problem three: zooming time is slow, taking a good couple of seconds more to go the short distance from wide to tele. Problem four: because this is a very small camera body, you have to shift your hands around quite a lot to access the various controls festooned over the body – case in point: there’s a button on the grip under your palm. The camera also lands up being gripped in a very cramped way unless you’re shooting landscape, though the information in the EVF rotates 90deg which is a nice touch (and inexcusable for every other EVF camera not to do).

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All in all – in a practical usage scenario – camera carried as you normally would, powered off, you see something and want to grab it – shot acquisition time from power off to capture is slower than a cold booted X1D. I’d put it at somewhere around ten seconds, which is nowhere near something like a GR or X1D in hot standby at perhaps three to four seconds, let alone a D850 at about a second or two. I think this is barely excusable for medium format, let alone something that’s meant to be a convenient quick-grab snapshot camera.

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Of course, if you have camera in hand and lens cap off – then we can probably halve that. ‘Setup’ time is the tradeoff for pocketability – and I’m not sure it’s a good one in this case, especially given there are alternatives that have both bigger envelope and are faster on the draw. However: this is where I get to the ‘it’s me, not you’ part: if you are fully focused on photography as the purpose of your outing, and want the best balance between size and performance but time is not so critical – say for landscapes on a hike, or some social photography you do in good light at a casual pace – this thing is pretty unbeatable. I can’t think of any current camera with higher performance per gram.

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There are of course a few other things I’d list as sensible compromises for something this small – the battery is microscopic, but somehow manages to be much, much better than expected. I could happily go a whole day of casual secondary photography (easily 400-500 images, short 2-3 frame bursts and a lot of power cycling between them) on a single charge. You’d definitely want a spare if you had it on continuously, though it can be topped up via MicroUSB on the go, in addition to the separate charger.

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The lens is impressive for its size and sensible tradeoffs – a good performer in the center throughout the range, less so in the corners due to fairly strong field curvature (but can still be sharp if off-center focusing points are used). It could use a bit more microcontrast and overall ‘pop’ though – this isn’t the best zoom I’ve used, though it isn’t the worst, and is probably the most compact. By far a more limiting factor is the slowness with which it zooms (using different motors, focusing is very fast), and IS doesn’t seem as effective somehow. I suspect this has something to do with the physical size of the lens elements required for APSC vs a smaller sensor, and the limited size in which to place the IS actuators. It’s certainly not as effective as the IS on its G7X Mark II sibling.

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Herein lies the problem: I think I simply bought the wrong camera for my needs. What I see as annoyances – mainly relating to quick grab speed – aren’t a problem if you’re not planning to use it in the way I am for a sort of social documentary or by-the-way opportunistic shots. Its G7X Mark II sibling might have well been a better choice: its lens is between 1.3 and 2 stops faster throughout the entire zoom range, has longer (100mm vs 70mm) reach at the long end, which is where I tend to spend most of my time these days, and on top of that, the G1X Mark III is already down to f3.2 at just 28mm. The G7X II starts faster and has an automatically retracting lens cover. The sensor may be 1”, but by the time you factor in more effective IS and the much greater lens speed – I suspect it’s a wash in practice.

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Why not one of the other 1” options, like a newer model of RX100? Because the sensor hasn’t really improved in a meaningful way in four years; because I owned the Mark III, and frankly found it to be too small and fiddly and simply not very enjoyable to shoot – and what I really looked forward to in the pull-up EVF turned out to be pretty much unusable in practice especially for spectacle wearers (there’s no eyecup or shading in bright light, where you’d need it most). This may be the real problem with small EVF cameras: if the body is too small, your thumb lands up in your nose and your hands are cramped, materially negating the added stability you should get from bracing the camera against your face. And it’s even worse if it’s cold and you’ve got gloves on (I’d say the Ricoh GR is the exception here are the controls are large and distinctive enough to be operated with normal leather gloves).

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Effectively, what we have in the G1X III is an immensely capable camera – but thanks to the care required to deploy it well, you have to treat it a lot more seriously than you’d think, at which point you probably want to be carrying something a little more serious and/or ergonomically comfortable. It doesn’t really fill the spontaneous opportunistic brief well: it’s simply too slow to set up the shot for that, and the slow lens speed on the long end limits usefulness in low light. What it really is, is the best deliberate camera for those on a severe weight diet; what I think would really change the game is the same everything except for a fast stabilized fixed prime – say a 28/2 equivalent – and please, with a retracting lens cover…MT

The Canon G1X Mark III is available here from B&H and Amazon
The Canon G7X Mark II is available here from B&H and Amazon

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Ultraprints from this series are available on request here

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