Is it possible to get excited about a compact camera in 2017?
After all, between dual-lens smartphones and compact system cameras, we’re already spoiled for choice when it comes to small, powerful snappers.
But Canon’s G1X Mark III is that rare thing – a genuinely innovative (and yes, even exciting) compact.
Why? It basically stuffs Canon’s DSLR tech (including an APS-C sensor) into a pocketable form factor, then tops it with the cherry of 3x optical zoom.
That’s an unusual combination – premium compacts like the Fujifilm X100 and Sony’s full-frame RX1 tend to have fixed lenses, but this flagship Powershot promises to combine the flexibility of zoom with a DSLR-style sensor. And fit it all in your coat pocket.
Sounds too good to be true? Let’s see what it can deliver…
Design: pocket powerhouse
Take one look at the G1X Mark III and it’s obvious who it’s aimed at.
Canon’s already made the polar opposite EOS M100 for those looking to take a photographic step up from their smartphone.
This black, serious-looking compact is courting those coming from the opposite direction – either existing DSLR wielders looking for a more discrete second camera, or maybe compact system camera converts who fancy trading in for something simpler and smaller.
Although the G1X Mark III isn’t as out and out pretty as something like the Fujifilm X100F (which also has an APS-C sized sensor), Canon has done a decent job with the design here.
There’s an all-metal design and a textured coating which gives the camera a feeling of high quality - a good job considering the price. The fact that the camera is so small yet manages to pack both an APS-C sized sensor and a zoom lens is pretty remarkable.
You’ll probably be hard pushed to fit it into your jeans pocket (especially skinny ones), but it’ll neatly slot into most jackets, and certainly won’t take up much room in your bag. For something that is basically a miniaturised DSLR, that’s bloody good.
Not only that, but there’s also a fully articulating screen and electronic viewfinder here - plus enough dials and buttons to give you speedy access to most of your settings.
So are there any compromises? The viewfinder is a little small, but still more than useable for both those that prefer to compose this way, and for those times when bright sunlight might prevent the screen from being used.
Canon’s clever “Touch and Drag” feature means you can continue to use the touchscreen to set the AF point even while using the viewfinder - even better is the fact that you can choose an “area” on the panel to prevent accidental changes with your big clumsy nose.
When the lens pops out from the housing, the camera’s no longer as teeny tiny as it once was, but that’s to be expected. There’s a control ring at the base of the lens, but the small overall size of the camera works against it here to make it a little fiddly in use. It can be used for various settings, including changing the aperture or zooming the lens in and out.
On the top of the the camera you’ll find both an exposure compensation dial, and a mode dial. The latter of the two features a button you need to hold down in order to twist it round - a simple feature which prevents accidental changes in your pocket or bag.
Features: not quite the best of both worlds
The G1X Mark III is a pro-friendly compact, so you get a full range of shooting modes; from fully automatic all the way up to manual mode (and semi-automatic options in between). You can also shoot in RAW format, as well as JPEG.
In order to effectively miniaturise, compromises have been made. These need to be considered before deciding whether it's the right camera for you.
Let’s start with the lens. Although it’s very nice and flexible to have a zoom lens - even if it is only 3x as in this case, the maximum aperture of f/2.8 very quickly drops, ending up at f/5.6 by the time the full 3x optical has been reached. In short, that means for low light shots, you’re probably gonna have to crank the ISO up.
One of the other big problems here is battery life. A huge sensor, an electronic viewfinder and an always-on screen add up to one thing: lots of power consumption.
The G1X Mark III is listed as only being capable of producing 200 shots from a single charge. That might be okay if you don’t use it all that often in a given day, but if you have plans to use it intensively - such as while on holiday - buying a second battery is a very good idea.
The fastest shutter speed available here is a not particularly fast 1/2000. That means shooting in bright light with a wide aperture can sometimes lead to overexposure, but it is helped out by an inbuilt ND filter which helps to darken things down. Still, when you consider that some cameras offer 1/32000 shooting, 1/2000 looks just a little bit poor.
Like Canon’s DSLRs, the G1X Mark III is equipped with Dual Pixel CMOS AF. This is something which its DSLRs use when shooting in Live View and while recording video - since this is not a DSLR, the G1X Mark III uses this focusing all the time.
It’s sharp and snappy in most conditions, but it’s still not as quick as your DSLR, something which may be a bit disappointing if you’re a DSLR owner yourself.
Safe to say that this camera isn’t intended for action, but even if you’re trying to track rapidly moving, everyday subjects - such as a pet - it can also be quite hit and miss.
Having a large sensor on a compact camera like this generally means macro focusing is also tricky. That’s no different here - don’t expect to get super close to your subjects, but you can still create some nice shallow depth of field effects.
Canon isn’t a company that offers 4K video as standard, unlike Panasonic, Fuji and Sony. This means the G1X Mark III tops out at a Full HD video resolution. How much that bothers you is likely to come down to how much video shooting you do, but in 2017 it’s starting to feel like such a common spec that not having it is an unusual disappointment.
All of this sounds like there are a lot of negatives - but when you’re considering spending £1200 on a compact camera, it’s important to have all the facts. There are of course lots of good points too, beyond the G1X Mark III's size, with the main one being high image quality. Talking of which...
Image quality: your DSLR super-sub
If the G1X Mark III is marred by some compromises, you'll soon forgive most of them when you see the pictures it takes. They're really rather good.
You get a DSLR sized sensor which packs a punch, able to produce a cracking level of detail and superb colour rendition. Exposures are well balanced in most conditions, but keep a thumb ready on the exposure compensation dial for times when high contrast situations throw things off.
Just like its DSLRs, the G1X Mark III’s metering system works off the active AF point - so if that happens to be over something overly dark or overly light, you may find that a tweak of the dial is necessary.
Low light shooting with the zoom at full extension drops you down to a maximum aperture of f/5.6 - not great for letting in lots of light. Still, high ISO performance up to around ISO 6400 is solid, creating an overall good impression of detail when looking at shots at normal printing or web sizes.
Zoom in 100% and you can see some image smoothing, but noise is kept to a reasonable minimum in JPEGs. You probably wouldn’t opt to shoot at ISO 12800 or ISO 25600, but it’s available should you be desperate and provides good enough shots for sharing at a small size.
Automatic white balance copes very well with a range of different shooting conditions, including under slightly overcast skies and artificial lighting. Overall, it's a big thumbs up.
Canon G1X Mark III verdict
What Canon has done with the G1X Mark III is pretty remarkable. Although there are lots of compromises, having an (almost) DSLR in your pocket is pretty damn cool.
It would make the ideal travel companion, for somebody who craves all the manual control, RAW format shooting and large sensor image quality that a camera like this brings, without being bogged down with a bulky DSLR. In fact, even the smallest compact system cameras are generally bigger than the G1X Mark III.
Of course, you do pay a pretty penny for this miniaturisation, making it unlikely to be the camera of choice for those on a tight budget. In short - this isn’t a camera that lets you abandon your DSLR completely, but it’s a very good backup for shooting on the go.