Panasonic’s Depth From Defocus (DFD) autofocus system is very fast and feels as quick as the hybrid phase- and contrast-detect AF systems used by rival makers – and for single-shot photography it works really well.
The Face/Eye detection mode identifies features almost instantly, while the Tracking mode, once locked on, follows a subject around the frame quickly and reliably. There's also a 49-Area mode that just picks a focus point for you, while the Custom Multi mode lets you pick a focus zone for the camera to use. With 1-area and Pinpoint modes on top of this, you've got all the accuracy and control you could need.
Unfortunately, it's a different story when set to continuous shooting. We found the Tracking mode quickly lost focus with any subject movement and framing changes, and while the Custom Multi mode did maintain focus pretty well with changing subject distances, it didn’t always look that way in the viewfinder. A combination of screen blackout and display lag meant that it was hard to judge focus while shooting, and we had to trust the AF to get it right (which it mostly did). This is something we noticed with the Panasonic G9, too. Our GX9 was a production model with the latest firmware, but still an early version.
In fairness, the GX9 is not billed as a sports specialist. It can shoot at a decent frame rate when required, but if this is your main area of interest you’d be better off with a camera designed for the job, not least because the GX9’s rectangular shape is better suited to more compact zoom and prime lenses rather than long and heavy telephoto types.
Image quality, however, is very good. It’s true that Panasonic’s Micro Four Thirds sensor is smaller than the APS-C sensors used by many mirrorless rivals, but you wouldn’t know it from looking at the pictures. The difference in sensor size only appears at higher ISO settings, where the Panasonic’s images start to lose detail and smooth over more quickly than those captured with larger sensors, but you would need to be shooting at ISO 3200 and above before this became particularly apparent.
At low to medium ISO settings, the GX9’s images are sharp, saturated and detailed, with little noise. We tested it with Panasonic’s retracting Lumix G VARIO 12-32mm f/3.5-5.6 ASPH. MEGA OIS –a capable performer, but probably not Panasonic’s best – and still got very good results. Panasonic bakes optical corrections into both its JPEGs and Raw files image files, so if there's any curvilinear distortion or chromatic aberration, you’ll almost certainly never see it.
Dynamic range is very good too – another thing smaller sensors are not supposed to be good at – and both the exposure and white balance systems appeared to perform perfectly during our time with the camera. Now and again you will have to apply exposure compensation to cope with unusually dark or light subjects, or high-contrast lighting where you want to base the exposure on a particular area, but that’s the same with any camera.
The GX9’s ability to cope with artificial indoor lighting is especially impressive. We took a series of handheld shots in a small museum with mixed lighting, and the camera produced consistently natural-looking colours.
The L.Monochrome mode produces nice results too, with a little more depth than the regular monochrome mode. The new grain effect does a convincing job of simulating film grain, but it’s a little too strong on its High setting. While it looks fine on the camera’s LCD, it’s a little heavy at normal viewing sizes and, in the L.Monochrome mode, seems to create some faint vertical banding.