Canon G1X Review: A Professional's Travel Camera
If Canon had released the G1X in 2010 or 2011 instead 2012, the G1X would have been a huge success and would have had a transformative role in the market place. Today the G1X takes its place as an exotic Point & Shoot camera producing phenomenal image that easy beats most any Point & Shoot but has stiff competition from the Compact System Camera (CSC) market. The G1X crams a high quality and state-of-the-art sensor into a compact Point & Shoot body covered with advanced manual controls and coupled with a lens that is significantly higher quality than what is found in Point & Shoot cameras or even CSC kit lenses. With these specifications, the G1X follows in the tradition of the 5D, 5D Mark II and 6D couple with Canon's 24-105/4L IS, and like these venerable cameras, the G1X will satisfy those looking to capture exceptional RAW files but in a compact camera (body plus retracted lens) ideally suited for landscapes, urban and travel subjects (see images below). Developing Lightroom 4 RAW files from the G1X and 5D2 with 24-105/4L IS lens reveals that the little G1X holds its own with one of the best DSLRs (comparison with 24-105 kit zoom lens only, better lenses exceed G1X). Keep in mind that the 5D2 with 24-105/4L IS lens is a professional camera that costs four times as much ($600 vs $2,500), weighs three times as much (1.2 lbs vs 3.4 lbs) and takes up five times as much space (37 cubic inches vs 181 cubic inches)! Comparing the G1X to CSC with their kit lenses shows that the G1X holds it own or even exceeds these cameras, however, few CSC have as compact a form once the lens retracts or as many advanced/manual controls/features. Comparing the G1X to a small sensor Point & Shoot cameras demonstrates the huge step up in image quality one gets with G1X's larger sensor and high quality zoom lens. In a market place that is becoming increasingly crowded with large sensor compacts sporting high quality fixed focal length lenses, the G1X maintains its niche with a high quality zoom lens and a complete set of advanced/manual controls/features.
Who should give Canon's G1X a closer look:
Someone who wants to travel (natural landscapes and urban scenes) with a compact Point & Shoot camera (a single camera that can be operated with only one hand and requires no extra lenses, flashes or other accessories), and who intends on using advanced manual controls to capture high quality RAW stills and videos that can match or beat CSC and DSLR cameras with their kit lenses.
Who should consider a different camera:
What is best about the G1X:
Image quality: This is the first Point & Shoot that includes a high quality large sensor and a built-in high quality zoom lens that provides high quality RAW files equal to a high-end CSC or crop sensor DSLR. Many Point & Shoots provide RAW files but the sensor creates a file with very little headroom to work with when it comes to noise, dynamic range and color tone, plus correcting the lens's extreme distortion and CA further compromises the file's image quality. Overall JPEG and RAW image quality is comparable or better than other larger sensor cameras, such as high-end compacts and CSC/DSLR's with kit lenses. I have personally tested and compared nearly all of the competitive cameras (Canon S110, Panasonic LX7, Sony RX100, Olympus PL5 w/ 14-42, Olympus EM5 w/ 12-50, Canon EOS-M w/ 18-55, Sony NEX-5r/6 w/ 16-50, and Fuji X-E1 w/ 18-55), and overall the G1X beats or holds its own with these cameras, including the much larger and more expensive models. The one main exception that consistently beats the G1X is Fuji's X-E1 with it's excellent 18-55 kit lens, however, this camera is much larger and considerably more expensive. Take note that any of the CSCs and DSLRs beat the G1X with high-end zoom lenses, such as Panasonic's 12-35/2.8 ($1,300) for micro 4/3's, Canon's 15-85 IS ($700) for crop sensor DSLRs, or any of Canon's L lenses ($1K+) for full frame DSLRs. Of course, cameras with these lenses are considerably larger, heavier and more expensive than the G1X.
Video: Not my expertise but viewing videos on a large monitor is quite impressive. The dedicated video record button is a nice feature, as is the wind filter, ND filter and the ability to customize numerous video effects before recording.
Advanced manual controls: Full manual operation is possible and the operation is very similar to a Canon DSLR with a pointer finger operated wheel on the front and a thumb operated wheel on the back. Exposure, focus and flash can be locked independently. The focus point is easily switched from multi-point to single-point with the ability to quickly move the single focus point to where you want with a dedicated focus point button. Most reviews complain about the loss of a dedicated ISO wheel but there is a dedicated ISO button that allows you to quickly adjust the ISO just like you would with a high-end Canon DSLR. In addition to this ISO set up being quick, it can also be accomplished without changing your hand grip, which is not the case with having to rotate one of the top plate dials. Overall this is one of the easiest and most pleasant camera configuration for manual operation.
Custom modes, menus and buttons: If you are willing to get to know this camera and dial it in for your particular photography needs then the G1X can become a very powerful professional level camera. The custom model dial settings "C1" and "C2" are particularly powerful and include custom memory setting for everything, even the My Menu custom settings. See the next section for my recommended custom settings to get the sense of the degree to which you can customize the camera to fit your needs or if you already have the camera to try out my recommended settings.
Smart Auto mode: The camera treats the Auto Mode Dial setting drastically different than all the other Advanced Mode Dial settings (C1, C2, M, Av, Tv, P). You can configure these Advanced Mode settings to your hearts content (see recommended custom settings below) but always have the Auto Mode to fall back on with Canon's latest and greatest features doing their thing, such as identifying focus subjects and tracking them or optimizing the JPEG only output. Auto Mode is useful for when you want a stranger to snap a portrait or when you just want to tune out and snap a shot. As soon as you want to retake control then just switch back to any of the Advanced Mode Dial settings and everything returns to your more photographer-friendly settings (see below).
Latest image stabilization system: IS helps considerably in low-light for still subjects such as natural landscapes and urban scenes. IS combined with f/2.8 aperture at the wide end of the zoom range results in excellent low-light capabilities.
Built-in ND filter: Essential for waterfalls and video work. This means there's one more item you don't have to carry with you and can be easily integrated into custom buttons, quick menus and my favorite, custom mode dials (C1 and C2).
Large high-quality adjustable screen: When in the closed position the screen is protected from damage. When open the screen provides for a greater range of shooting positions. The advantages of an adjustable screen are surprisingly numerous, including tripod work, resting camera on ground when no tripod is available, creative angle shots and self portraits. The G1X has turned me into a huge fan of adjustable screens. The screen is also perfectly usable in the brightest of lighting conditions with the LCD brightness left in the normal setting. This is even the case when wearing dark sunglasses and standing in the middle of alpine snow fields with full summer sun. Compare this screen with just about any other Point & Shoot or CSC reveals how Canon have produced one of their most usable screens in bright out lighting. Fortunately, this excellent screen performance means that the tiny and near useless view finder won't be required. The only minor critique of the LCD is that oil or sunscreen smears require a lens cloth to effectively remove.
Built-in pop-up flash and flash hot shoe: At least you have basic flash coverage provided and a built-in flash that is pretty decent. The manual pop-up flash release is most welcome on a high-end camera in which the user knows what they are doing and wants to be in control. Adding an external flash to the hot shoe transforms the G1X into a powerful portrait and social candid camera with image results that match or beat most DSLRs. A flash extension cord provides for a very powerful and creative portrait set up as you can easily operate the G1X in your right hand and then position the flash where it provides the desired lighting.
Size: Compact enough for travel and large enough for easy operation of full manual controls. While the G1X is hardly tiny, it is typically more compact that other large sensor CSCs with a zoom lens attached.
Build quality: Excellent feel and build quality, at least once you fix the loose removable lens barrel casing as described below under recommended modifications.
Price: Watch for discounts that regularly dip prices with camera and accessories down to below $600 (Example: G1X w/ 16GB SanDisk SDHC, LowePro Rezo 60 case, Canon PIXMA PRO-100 and Canon 13x19 paper for $598 from B&H with free shipping after Canon $400 rebate. That is half off of the $1,200 normal price!).
Ways that the G1X could have been even better:
Speed up mode dial change: Whenever you change modes the camera displays a silly little mode change graphic. This causes a longer delay than desirable. Not sure why they would do this on such a high-end camera. This is one of many features in which the G1X sits oddly between consumer Point & Shoot and professional DSLR worlds. Considering the image quality and price Canon should have taken the camera even closer to a DSLR. For my personal use this is the biggest short coming and most annoying aspect of the G1X.
Improve AF Speed: This is a non-issue for me but there's no doubt that for fast moving subjects the G1X isn't up to the task compared to other options in the same price/size category. I only use the center AF on Canon's 5D Mark II and never had an issue with AF performance, so obviously, I am not the kind of photographer that demands a lot from an auto focus system. On a more positive note, I have found that the G1X auto focus is more accurate than the 5D2 center point. Again, this is for static landscape subjects, when the AF locks it has a spot on focus.
Macro: Forget about it, the G1X doesn't have impressive macro capabilities and it should. The 5D2 with 24-105/4L IS provided excellent macro, so much so that I only use a dedicated macro lens when the subject exclusively requires macro. I am satisfied with the G1X replacing my 5D2 with 24-105/4L IS but I will be keeping the 5D2 with primes for macro, shallow DOF and tilt/shift work. A macro filter can be added to increase the magnification as a work around.
Improve image quality: Yes, the G1X has the best or close to the best sensor in a compact Point & Shoot but it could be even better. Canon continues to fall short of Sony/Nikon/Fuji with dynamic range at base/low-ISO settings. Canon has had four years since it was given notice by competitors that it was falling behind, however, it has yet to match competition at base/low-ISO settings.
Aspect ratio and wide angle coverage: For a professional's Point & Shoot I am disappointed that the G1X uses a 3:4 aspect ratio instead of the standard DSLR 2:3 aspect ratio. On a plus side, with the 3:4 ratio the 28mm equivalent wide end covers the same height as 24mm on full frame but the sides are cut off at 28mm on full frame. So for a 3:4 aspect ratio camera the G1X includes more image view than the equivalent wide end of CSC/DSLR APS-C cameras with a kit lens that starts at 18mm, which is equivalent to 28-29mm on full frame. So that is an advantage of 3:4 aspect ratio but my preference would be for a 2:3 native/RAW aspect ratio with 24mm full frame equivalent. Panoramas will be used to overcome the lack of ultra wide end coverage and square format.
Add S110 lens dial, and make the dial programmable for zoom, aperture, ISO, etc.
Add all function and menu items to the list of available custom settings for the Shortcut button and My Menu.
Improve battery life: The G1X has a battery life that is comparable to most Point & Shoot cameras but when compared to CSC the G1X falls short. The best solution is to purchase replacement batteries for $5/each through Amazon. But if that isn't enough then you can set up the camera to save power by turning off the Continuous AF/IS and by reducing the LCD brightness by one or two increments. That being said, I have yet to require more than one or two batteries for a full weekend trip so for me battery life is not an issue.
Make the hand grip as deep as the retracted lens barrel: Don't get me wrong, the current hand grip is great but compared to a DSLR it falls short. Sure the camera would look a bit bigger but there would be no practical difference in size and the little dense G1X would be a lot easier to handle and less likely to get dropped! Plus this extra space could be used to make the battery twice as large.
Get rid of view finder: It is nearly useless while the LCD is nearly perfect. The LCD give you simultaneous exposure simulation and histogram, plus information on all current camera settings. This is huge advantage of a DSLR that requires post photo histogram checks. The G1X's is the most easily viewed LCD in bright sunlight that I have ever used or seen. There's zero need for the built-in viewfinder. Canon, just drop the view finder as it takes up space and adds weight (note that Canon dropped VF from G15 so hopefully the G2X will also drop the VF).
Fix loose removable lens barrel casing: The loose lens casing impacts the impression that the G1X is cheap when it is in fact a very solid and robust little camera. Luckily this problem is very easy solved by the repair described below under recommended modifications.
Improve fit of lens cap: Get a lens hood and well designed bag (LowePro Apex 100 AW with lens hood installed) so you can forever retire the lens cap like you do with your DSLRs, otherwise the little ill-fitting lens cap is going to drive you crazy!
Include lens hood with camera: Considering the camera's intended goal of delivering the best image quality possible, a lens hood is an essential accessory.
Reduce size and weight: Other than removing the viewfinder, I am not sure how this would be accomplished without removing advanced/manual controls (no way!) but it is definitely on my wish list.
Add Wi-Fi: Every camera should have this feature to upload photos while traveling, provide remote shutter operation and allow for novel app usage. The G1X is a high-end travel camera (obviously not a family portrait camera!), so Wi-Fi should be considered an essential item for Canon's top end Point and Shoot.
Recommended G1X Custom Settings and Modifications:
I developed and analyzed photos of my local brick wall at all zoom focal lengths and aperture stops. Here's what I found:
Aperture f/6.3 offers the best overall edge-to-edge lens performance (sharpness, vignetting, etc) for all focal lengths.
The center is sharp after one stop down from wide open for any given focal length, while corners require stopping down a bit more.
Diffraction noticeably impacts sharpness at around f/8 but can be pushed to f/10, especially at the mid and telephoto focal lengths.
Distortion correction of +4 in Lightroom easily takes care of wide angle distortion, however, it is needed from wide angle 15mm (27mm equivalent) to around 22mm (40mm eq). Mid and telephoto distortion correction is not required.
The wide end 15mm (27mm eq) is slightly less sharp when compared to the rest of the zoom range, however, it is still great by my standards (see images below). If you want excellent sharpness then zooming in slightly from 15mm (27mm eq) to 16mm (30mm eq) improves sharpness.
With the exception of the wide end 15mm (27mm eq), as discussed above, the lens performance very well without any noticeable flaws and does a good job to get the most image quality out of the large sensor.
P, Tv, Av and M Mode Dial Settings: I shoot in "Av" and "M" Dial Modes the majority of the time with the following settings:
Set the file format to RAW with a 4:3 aspect ratio. If you are spending the $$$ to get this camera then you likely want the best image quality possible. If that is the case then use RAW file format with the default native sensor aspect raio of 4:3 to capture the most data in the field and give the greatest range of options when you develop the RAW images at your computer.
ISO set to 100. The Auto ISO is a great feature and the sensor does a good job of managing medium ISOs but ISO 100 will give you the best image quality. Setting Auto ISO to 400 is a good alternative.
White Balance set to Auto AWB. It is easy to adjust later in RAW Mode so why bother fussing with this setting in the field.
Drive Mode set to Single Shot. The shutter release will fire off more than one shot fairly easily is you use continuous.
Metering set to Evaluative and Spot AE Point set to AF Point. These are my default settings but Center Weighted Average and Spot metering settings can be quickly selected with a dedicated button when needed.
AF Frame set to FlexiZone with the center point selected. There's a dedicated button for moving the AF point. Quick and easy just like on a DSLR.
AF-Point Zoom, MF-Point Zoom and AF-Assist Beam turned on. The AF and MF-Point Zooms are a fantastic feature that help to confirm focus. The AF-Assist Beam works and only triggers when needed so no downside of having the AF help.
IS Mode set to Continuous with Power IS turned on. This uses more battery but it reduces shutter release delays and maximizes IS benefits.
Digital Zoom, Continuous AF, Servo AF, Safety MF, Safety Shift, Wind Filter, Blink Detection all set to off. Continuous AF uses to much battery as well as making the camera more jumpy and less responsive. Safety MF and Safety Shift will prevent you from having manual control. The wind filter can be turned on when needed during video. Blink Detection will just get in the way.
After Shot Display Image Review turned off. This is an important custom setting as it speeds up the camera and makes the interface less jumpy. With the live feed histogram on the LCD available before you take the shot there less need to review images as is the case with DSLRs. Plus a dedicated review button allows you to quickly review images when needed.
Custom Display 1 and 2 Settings: For the custom display you can take advantage of the live exposure feed on the LCD by including a histogram (a critical feature, especially if you shoot RAW and what optimal image quality during post-processing). I have the first display setup with Shooting Info and Histogram. The second display is setup for tripod work with Grid Lines and Electronic Level added.
Shortcut Button Setting: The Shortcut button is very helpful if you shoot JPEG but far less helpful if you shoot RAW as the majority of options are not available in RAW format. However, the Shortcut Button is very helpful when using Custom Mode Dials "C1" and C2" as described below. My default setting is AFL but since AFL only stays locked for a single shot I have found that pressing MF when the shutter is pressed half way proves to be more useful as the focus stays locked until you repress the MF button. Locking focus is essential for capturing multiple shot panoramas in Manual "M" Dial Mode.
My Menu items Include: AF Frame, Continuous AF, Servo AF, IS Settings and Wind Filter.
C1 Custom Mode Dial: I have C1 set up for waterfall tripod photos with the following settings that differ from my typical Advanced Mode Dial settings:
Manual "M" Dial Mode with aperture set to f/10, shutter speed set to 1/5. Aperture and shutter speeds can be adjusted later but this a decent waterfall default.
ISO set to 100 for obvious reasons.
IS Mode turned off because a tripod should be used for this setting.
Custom display with Grid Lines and Electric Level turned on to help with composition.
3-Sec Custom Timer Delay enabled to prevent camera shake from pressing the shutter. The built-in 2-sec setting also works but I find that the one extra second makes a difference in helping vibrations to settle down.
ND Filer turned on for a more blurred water effect without using a very small aperture that introduces defraction.
Shortcut Button set to ND Filter so you can quickly switch this feature on and off as needed.
My Menu items include: IS Settings, Spot AE Point, Set Shortcut Button and Save Custom C1 Settings.
C2 Custom Mode Dial: I have C2 setup for action shots with the following settings that differ from my typical Advanced Mode Dial settings:
Shutter "Tv" Dial Mode with shutter speed set to 1/400.
File Format set to high-quality JPEG to speed up shot-to-shot drive speeds.
Auto ISO turned on and set to 1600.
Drive Mode set to Continuous.
AF Frame set to Tracking AF.
Shortcut Button turned to Drive Mode so that Continuous AF can be quickly selected when Tracking AF isn't working or when you just want to use a more manual setting with Center Point Servo AF.
My Menu items include: AF Frame, Continuous AF, Servo AF, Set Shortcut Button and Save Custom C2 Settings.
Repairing Loose Lens Barrel: This won't take long and doesn't permanently alter camera:
Start by removing the metal lens barrel casing and inspect the attachment and release system.
Cut a very thin strip of drafting tape and then place it within one of the tracks/groves for attaching the removable metal lens barrel casing. Make sure the tape doesn't prevent the lens barrel from locking into a closed position.
Reattach the lens barrel casing and make sure it clicks into place. If there is still movement then remove lens barrel casing and move the tape closer to the end of the track/grove to make for a more snug fit. If it is still to loose then use a wide section of tape.
Example Galleries (all RAW files developed in Lightroom 4 without HDR capture or processing):
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