The Canon PowerShot G3 X ($999.99) is a fantastic idea for a camera. Its 25-600mm f/2.8-5.6 zoom lens can cover a very wide range of photographic subjects, from sweeping landscapes to skittish wildlife, and its 20-megapixel 1-inch image sensor puts the smaller imagers found in pocket-friendly superzooms to shame when pushing the ISO in dim situations. But it has a few issues that keep it from being the perfect travel camera. I found the focus speed to be a little slow, the image quality when zoomed all the way in to be hit or miss, and I really, really would have liked to have seen a built-in EVF. Our Editors’ Choice for premium superzooms is still the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX10 ($475.50 at Amazon UK) . Even though its range is more limited, it’s an extremely well-balanced performer.
DesignThe G3 X ($475.50 at Amazon UK) is the smallest long zoom model with a 1-inch sensor, but it’s by no means pocket-friendly. It measures 3 by 4.9 by 4.2 inches (HWD) and weighs 1.6 pounds. Compare that with the Panasonic FZ1000 ($475.50 at Amazon UK) (3.9 by 5.4 by 5.1 inches, 1.8 pounds), a larger camera that doesn’t have quite the same zoom range, but does include a built-in EVF. The G3 X is solidly built; its body is mostly metal and it’s sealed against dust and moisture. It’s not quite in the same build class as the RX10, but it certainly feels a bit more solid than the FZ1000 in most ways.
The notable exception is the lens. When the camera is powered down and it’s retracted into the body, you can feel it wobbling around as you hold the camera in your hand. That’s obviously an engineering choice—the lens elements need to have some play in order for optical stabilization to be effective. And when the power is on there’s no wobble at all. But even so, it’s a disconcerting feeling that had me wondering if I had somehow manage to break my review loaner even before I really got a chance to use it.
The reason to spend a bit more on the G3 X versus its competition is the lens. The 8.8-220mm f/2.8-5.6 zoom covers a field of view that’s equivalent to 25-600m on a full-frame camera. It offers the same wide-angle field of view as competing models, but zooms further than the RX10 (200mm) or FZ1000 (400mm). The downside is that the lens narrows to f/5.6—and it does so rather quickly, just past the 135mm equivalent—so it captures less light than its competition at all but its widest angles of view.
Macro focus is one thing that sets the Sony RX10 apart from others in this class. It can focus to 1.2 inches at its widest angle and 11.8 inches when zoomed to the 200mm position. The G3 X doesn’t quite lock on as close. At its widest angle it can focus to about 2 inches, at 200mm minimum focus distance is about 27.6 inches, and at 600mm it’s 33.5 inches. You’ll have an easier job filling the frame with small objects using the RX10, even though its zoom range is more limited. The other player in this class, the FZ1000, matches the RX10 at its widest angle in terms of close focus, but it doesn’t do as well when zoomed, dropping to 39.4 inches at 400mm. The G3 X trumps the Panasonic at the log end, capturing images with slightly higher magnification. But neither can lock on as close as the Sony when zoomed.
Canon opted not to include a built-in viewfinder with the G3 X. I think that’s a mistake. There is an add-on viewfinder available—and it’s a good one—but at $300, the EVF-DC1 makes the G3 X a more expensive proposition. It places it on level with the most expensive camera in this class, the Sony RX10 II ($1,299.99). Shooting at 600mm using the rear LCD is not a pleasant experience—it’s difficult to maintain the framing you’re after and to keep the camera steady as you capture an image. To me, the EVF is an almost essential purchase along with the camera. Its cost is only ameliorated if you own the G1 X Mark II ($475.50 at Amazon UK) or the EOS M3 as well, both of which use the same EVF. Yes, it will make the body a bit bigger, but the G3 X isn’t going to fit in any pockets as it is.
Tracking moving subjects at 600mm is a daunting prospect. To make telephoto photography a bit more feasible, Canon has included a framing assist button on the lens barrel. Holding it in zooms out from the current position, displaying a box that represents the framing at the position at which the lens was previously set. You just need to place your subject in the box and release the button, which will cause the lens to zoom in to its previous position. There’s also an MF button on the lens barrel, which sets the camera to manual focus mode—there’s a manual focus ring around the barrel.
The top plate houses the pop-up flash (a mechanical release sits on the left side). It’s mounted on a hinge, but it won’t fire when tilted back, so you can’t use it as modest bounce flash. There is a hot shoe, which accommodates either the aforementioned EVF or a Canon Speedlite external flash. If you want bounce capability with the camera, you’ll likely want to pair it with the compact Speedlite 270EX II ($169.99).
The Mode Dial sits to the right of the hot shoe, and to its right are the On/Off button, a top-mounted control wheel, the Record button for movies, and an EV compensation dial with -3 to +3 adjustment in third-stop increments. Unlike with the G7 X ($475.50 at Amazon UK) , the dial is in the traditional orientation, so positive values sit toward the front of the camera and negative toward the rear when it’s set to the 0 position. The shutter release and zoom rocker sit at the top of the front handgrip, which is a bit lower than the top plate controls.
There’s a lone button running across the top of the rear plate, just above the LCD. It’s the Mobile Device Connect button, and it launches the G3 X’s Wi-Fi system. The remainder of the controls run along the right side of the rear display. The Shortcut button sits at the inner edge of the rear thumb rest; it doesn’t have a function by default, but can be programed to performed any of 21 functions. I set it to toggle the in-camera neutral density filter.
The exposure lock and autofocus select buttons sit to the right of the thumb rest. Below them, surrounding the rear control dial, are Play, Menu, and Display controls. The dial has four directional presses (ISO/Wi-Fi, Flash, Autofocus/Drive Mode, and Macro), along with a center Q/Set button. The Q button launches Canon’s on-screen overlay menu, which gives you access to several more functions.
The Q menu can also be launched by tapping on the top right corner of the rear display. Canon has used touch screens on other premium compacts and SLRs effectively, and it’s no different with the G3 X. Additional touch controls include ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. You can also tap any part of the frame to select a focus point when set to flexible spot focus, or to track an object when set to Face Detect/Multi-point focus.
The LCD is a big 3.2 inches, and mounted on a hinge. It can tilt down, sit perpendicular to the body, face all the way forward for selfies, or be set at any position in between those extremes. At 1,620k dots, the display is one of the sharpest you’ll find on any camera. It’s bright enough to use on sunny days, and the tilting design allows you to avoid the direct glare of the sun, which is enough to wash out any screen.
As you’d expect with a camera that’s as well-suited for travel as the G3 X, Wi-Fi is built in. You can copy JPG images (but not Raw—there’s no on-the-fly conversion or in-camera Raw development available) to your iOS or Android device using the free Canon Camera Connect app.
Remote control is also an option with the app. Full manual exposure control is available, and you can select a focus point via touch, adjust the zoom, and snap a photo. There is a slight delay in operation, but the Live View feed to the smartphone is smooth. Video shooters will be sorry to discover that remote control is for still shots only.
There’s no built-in GPS, but you can add location data to images using your smartphone. You’ll need to enable the location logger in the Canon app before shooting, and then copy the GPS coordinates to images using the app.
Performance and Image QualityThe G3 X powers on, focuses, and fires in about 2.4 seconds, which is on the slow side. Its autofocus system is also a little laggy, requiring about 0.15-second to lock and fire at the wide end and about 0.4-second when zoomed all the way in. The Panasonic FZ1000 is a lot faster to start (0.8-second) and focuses almost instantly at its widest angle, but it too slows to about 0.4-second when zoomed to its maximum 400mm focal length.
Burst shooting speed varies depending on camera settings. If you’re capturing Raw, Raw+JPG, or JPGs at the SuperFine compression setting, the G3 X is limited to shooting at 0.8 frame per second. But if you shoot JPGs at the default Fine compression level, the burst rate improves to a more reasonable 6.4fps with focus locked with the first shot. When AI Servo focus is enabled, the rate slows to 3.3fps. The G3 X’s zoom range and compact size certainly makes it an intriguing choice for wildlife shooters, but if you’re interested in shooting subjects that demand an immediate response from your camera’s focus system (like birds in flight or cheetahs running across the plains in Africa), you’ll do a bit better with an SLR like the Canon 7D Mark II ($475.50 at Amazon UK) . That’s not to say that getting an action shot with the G3 X is impossible—it just takes a bit more practice, care, and timing on your part to nail it.
I used Imatest to see how sharp the G3 X’s long zoom lens is. At 24mm f/2.8 it scores 2,248 lines per picture height on our center-weighted sharpness test. That’s better than the 1,800 lines we like to see in a photo, and image quality holds up through the midparts of the frame. Edges are a bit soft (1,534 lines), which is fairly typical for a compact camera, but disappointing when compared with the performance delivered by the other 1-inch superzooms. Both the RX10 and FZ1000 show stronger performance at the edges of the frame.
Stopping down to f/4 offers only marginal improvement—the center-weighted score increase to 2,263 lines and edges to 1,638. Image quality at f/5.6 is just about the same. Shooting at f/8 should be avoided at the wide angle, as diffraction sets in and drops the score to a mere 2,069 lines.
At 50mm the maximum aperture has narrowed to f/4. The lens scores 2,374 lines here, with edges that are a bit better than at 24mm, but still a little soft at 1,676 lines. Stopping down to f/5.6 improves the overall score by only a small margin, but delivers better performance at the periphery of the frame (2,000 lines). Shooting at f/8 is fine here; the center-weighted score is 2,375 lines and edges hit 2,200 lines.
At 100mm the maximum aperture is f/5. Performance is weaker when compared with wider focal lengths; the G3 X scores 1,975 lines here. Edge performance is an issue again, with some softness showing at the outer parts of the frame (1,640 lines). Image quality is just about the same at f/5.6. There’s a modest drop in the average score at f/8 (1,940 lines), but edges are just as sharp as the center when stopped down to this aperture.
The lens hits its narrowest maximum aperture, f/5.6, just beyond the 135mm mark. That can be a concern if you want to keep your ISO lower when zoomed in. The Panasonic FZ1000 only reaches 400mm, but its f/2.8-4 zoom drops to f/4 at 170mm and maintains that f-stop through 400mm. That means that the FZ1000 is capable of capturing twice as much light as the G3 X at telephoto focal lengths.
At 220mm f/5.6 the G3 X is still a strong performer, notching 2,102 lines with edges that, while a bit lower than the center in resolution, are still strong at 1,872 lines. Stopping down to f/8 drops the average score slightly (2,019 lines), but edges improve to about 2,000 lines. At 300mm f/5.6 there’s a noticeable drop in clarity; the camera shows 1,888 lines there, with edges that show about 1,768 lines. Performance is almost identical at f/8.
Beyond that, space constraints keeps me from properly framing enough of a standard SFRPlus test chart for Imatest to produce results. A visual inspection of a small portion of the chart at 400mm shows that the center is crisp, with edges that are on the soft side—which by now sounds typical of the G3 X. As you’d expect, edges are crisper at f/8.
At 600mm f/5.6 there’s a definite drop in sharpness, even at the center of the frame, and edges are slightly blurred. Stopping down to f/8 offers some improvement; the center is tack sharp there, but mid parts of the frame show some blur and edges are still soft. In the field, I found that chromatic aberration (purple color fringing) would pop up in shots toward the edges of the frame at longer focal lengths, but it’s pretty well-controlled at wider angles. It’s not an obscene amount, and is easily removed using the proper tool in Lightroom CC ($475.50 at Amazon UK) .
In practical terms, the drop in quality at the edges of the frame is a compromise that you’re going to get with a lens that covers a 1-inch sensor, is as compact as the one on the G3 X, and has the such an ambitious zoom range. Image quality, for the most part, is not a problem I had with the G3 X. The exception is at 600mm, where I was disappointed with the detail that the lens picked up. It’s not that bad with static subjects—the edges of the frame of a zoomed-in shot of the Flatiron Building showed some blur, but I was happy enough with the center, and it looks fine at Web resolution. But I found moving targets to be a bit more lacking in detail than I expected, which I peg as a result of a lens that’s not quite as crisp as it should be at 600mm, and an autofocus system that may not be quite up to the task of effectively locking and firing on a target that’s moving. It’s a 1-inch sensor, yes, but at its true 220mm f/5.6 extreme, depth of field can be shallow.
Imatest also checks photos for noise, which can detract from image quality as the sensitivity to light (ISO) is increased. The G3 X can shoot from ISO 125 through ISO 12800. When capturing JPGs at default settings, the G3 X keeps noise under 1.5 percent through ISO 3200, which is actually a stop better than the Canon G7 X. Both cameras use the same image sensor, so processing and in-camera noise reduction is at play here. A close look at images from our test scene on a calibrated NEC MultiSync PA271W($475.50 at Amazon UK) display shows that there’s a noticeable drop in detail at ISO 1600 and beyond. Even though image quality suffers at high ISO, it’s well ahead of a long superzoom with a comparatively small 1/2.3-inch image sensor. Canon’s own PowerShot SX60 HS ($475.50 at Amazon UK) is one of the better examples of a camera with an insane zoom range, but its JPG output becomes troublesome at ISO 800. With the G3 X, I’d avoid shooting in JPG format beyond ISO 1600. You can take a look at crops from each ISO in the slideshow that accompanies this review and judge for yourself.
The G3 X also captures images in Raw format. It takes a bit more time to process images shot in Raw, but you’ll be able to push the ISO higher, make adjustments to exposure and color balance, and tweak images to your liking with more latitude than you could with a JPG. Our tests show that the G3 X does a solid job capturing image detail through ISO 3200 when shooting in Raw. Image noise is more of an issue at ISO 6400, but detail still shines through the grain—it’s absent in the corresponding JPG shot. At ISO 12800 the camera is a bit too noisy for my taste, but is useable in a pinch.
Video is recorded at up to 1080p60 quality in MP4 format. The quality is pretty good, with crisp details and smooth motion. Rolling shutter can be seen in very quick pans, but I was very happy with the stabilization system; there’s obviously some motion when shooting handheld footage at 600mm, but it’s not jittery. The autofocus system did get confused when recording our test scene—it couldn’t quite decide on which plane of focus to lock. It’s an effect that showed up occasionally in field testing, with the video drifting out of focus for a split second, but then quickly returning to proper focus. The in-camera mic does a decent job of picking up audio, but like all omnidirectional microphones, it also picks up background noise. Canon includes a standard 3.5mm microphone jack, as well as a headphone port for monitoring, so you can use the camera for projects that require high-quality audio capture.
There’s also a port for a wired remote control, a standard mini USB port, and a mini HDMI port. The SD/SDHC/SDXC memory card slot is in the same bottom compartment as the battery, and Canon includes a dedicated wall charger with an integrated folding plug to recharge the battery.
ConclusionsThe Canon PowerShot G3 X is an ambitious camera—it has the longest zoom range among models with a 1-inch sensor. That, as well as the image quality advantages of its large image sensor make it, on paper, an ideal travel camera. But there are some design choices and real-world issues that prevent it from earning top marks. The decision to omit an electronic viewfinder is one that I don’t agree with. A camera with this long of a lens all but requires one, and it should be included in a camera that costs $1,000. Yes, there’s an add-on EVF available—and it’s a good one—but it adds $300 to the price tag and is best removed and stowed separately if carrying in a bag to minimize the chance of damage.
Focus speed is another concern. A long lens appeals to photographers who like to take pictures of animals in the wild as well as to parents photographing their children playing sports, but you’ll need to take a bit more care to properly track your subject and keep it in frame than you would with a camera that can focus just a little bit faster. And then there’s image quality at longer focal lengths. The G3 X performs admirably throughout most of its range, but as you approach 600mm it’s clear that images lose a bit in terms of detail.
That’s not to say that the G3 X is a bad camera. It’s far from it. In some ways it reminds me of the first iteration of the G1 X ($475.50 at Amazon UK) , which looked amazing on paper but was frustrating to use in reality. Canon came roaring back with the G1 X Mark II, which was just a better designed camera all around. The G3 X is a better product than the original G1 X, and while I ran into some problems during field testing, I really enjoyed having such a long zoom without image quality compromises that comes with a standard point-and-shoot image sensor. It’s a lot lighter than an SLR and a trio of zoom lenses that would be required to cover the same range.
But I just can’t see spending $1,000 on this when the Panasonic FZ1000 is available for $100 less, includes a built-in EVF, and can record video at 4K resolution. Its lens doesn’t reach quite as far, but it captures twice the light at its maximum length and resolves enough detail to withstand some cropping. It’s my recommendation for photographers who want a relatively light camera with a long lens, and aren’t happy with the image quality delivered by the tiny image sensors found in pocket superzooms. And it may very well remain so until Canon unveils the eventual G3 X Mark II, which I hope offers as many improvements as the second iteration of the G1 X did.
Our Editors’ Choice in this category is still the shorter-zooming Sony RX10, but if you’re considering a camera with 600mm reach, its 24-200mm f/2.8 zoom is probably a little short for your tastes. Sony also sells the RX10 II, priced higher at $1,300, but which uses the same lens. Its big upgrades are video related, as it adds 4K recording and a 1080p slow motion capture mode. Our review of the RX10 II is in progress.