Animal detect autofocus on Lumix G9 – first impressions

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I have been shooting with the Lumix G9 for almost two years now, basically since it was released. I am a huge fan of Lumix and the G9 in particular. I love the light weight of micro four thirds lenses, as I’ve written about previously here. And I love 6K photo mode, which lets you get 30 frames a second of 18 megapixel images – I’ve got a number of images that I just wouldn’t have got without this, as I talk about here and here.

One area where the G9 falls a bit short of some other leading cameras, especially the high end Sony models, is in its autofocus on fast moving objects, especially birds in flight. So I was super excited when Panasonic announced a new firmware upgrade with animal detect autofocus. I downloaded the firmware upgrade yesterday and did some initial testing last night and this morning. Despite the fact that we have had lousy shooting conditions in Denver, very cloudy, dark and overcast, I have been really impressed with this so far. Here I’ll share a few of the pictures I’ve taken so far, with some commentary.

When you shoot with Animal Detect autofocus mode on, the viewfinder shows a rectangle around the animal’s body once it detects it. If it finds multiple animals you can toggle between them by pressing the joystick button, or by panning so that only the one you want is in view, then it will lock onto that one. Once it is locked on to an individual animal, it does a good job of continuing to follow and focus on that one for as long as you keep it in the frame.

The system does an amazing job of focusing on animals even when there is vegetation or other obstructions between you and the subject. Here are a few examples of this with deer from last night’s shoot.

All the images in the post were shot with fairly high ISO because of the bad light. I have intentionally only done minimal processing on all of the images so you can see what they look like more or less straight from the camera – pretty much I just did an “auto” process in Lightroom with a bit of tweaking of tone and exposure in some cases.

The following shot had no obstructions but I thought it was quite striking how sharp the eyes were (and the face in general). I have read somewhere that the autofocus algorithm tries to focus on the eyes where possible, and it certainly has done here. This image is somewhat cropped.

P1639814-2

This morning I went to shoot at a different location where there are generally a lot of birds. Again it was poor light, but again the system showed how well it could focus even with quite severe vegetation in front of the subject.

First, this is a black-capped chickadee in the midst of quite a dense tree, but still sharply in focus. And then also a couple of shots of a Great Blue Heron with a number of branches in close proximity.

Next I suddenly noticed a squirrel in a dense tree behind me, and I thought it was quite amazing how well the camera focused on the squirrel even when it was significantly obscured by branches in front of it.

Next is my one bird in flight shot using the animal detection. I took a few others at greater distance where the animal detection didn’t kick in, but on this one I got the rectangle identifying the rear bird’s body. Because it was so dark it wasn’t good conditions for birds in flight – this image was taken at 1/500s and f/5.0, at ISO 2500, with the Leica 100-400mm lens (which was used for all the images here). So there’s some wing blur, though I think the effect is quite nice, and it’s not super sharp, but I think that the focus has locked on very well despite having a pretty busy background.

Finally, a few more shots of the great blue heron. In this sequence I show shots all taken from the same location through some fairly dense vegetation. In the first shot I am using the animal detect mode, and this focused very quickly to give me the shot you see here. The second shot is using 255 area focus mode, and as you can see it focuses on the vegetation. The third shot is using point focus mode, and as you can see I got a similar shot, but it probably took me 4 or 5 seconds to switch focus modes and move the focus point to just the right spot to get this. Here the heron was stationary so I was able to do that, but in some of the other shots like the squirrel ones, the subject was very fast moving and these is no way I could have done this.

Finally, here is a close up portrait of the heron, again taken through vegetation. It is very nice and sharp with the eye in clear focus.

I hope to get out again soon with some better light, though snow is forecast over the next day or two, so it may not be until the weekend. I definitely want to do more testing on birds in flight. But I have to say that I am very impressed with how well the system picks out animals even with very busy vegetation in front of them. It takes probably half a second or so on average to lock onto the subject, but then it tracks very well from that point on, with no obvious “focus hunting” where the object goes in and out of focus. It also works very well with video – I tested it with 6K video mode and it worked in just the same way, including display of the tracking rectangles. According to this article, written in June 2019, the Sony animal detect autofocus only works for stills and not for video, so that is one up for Panasonic.

Panasonic has been criticized in the past for not having phase detect auto focus (PDAF) like most other companies. But this sort of Artificial Intelligence based focusing probably doesn’t really benefit from PDAF, I wouldn’t think. I haven’t done enough testing yet to know if it will deliver major improvements on birds in flight – I suspect it will, though probably not to the level of Sony. But the ability to pick out animals from dense backgrounds like I’ve shown here is certainly a major step forward. I definitely feel that based on my testing so far, the new focus system is going to deliver some significant improvements in my wildlife photography.

6 Replies to “Animal detect autofocus on Lumix G9 – first impressions”

  1. Peter, thanks for this test and the great post. It sounds like animal detect is going to make a big improvement in wildlife shooting on the G9. I am using the Panasonic Leica 100-400 on the G85 right now, and have been on the fence about the G9 after some posts about autofocus woes. Your posts on 6K mode and now the improved auto focus make me much more optimistic that the G9 is the way to go when I update my camera body. The results you and others get with the 100-400, and my own experience so far, combine to convince me that M43 is more than capable of delivering the shots I want, as my skill with bird photography grows. I am just not able to manage 6+ lbs. of camera and lens these days, and I just don’t see why I would need to. Getting great images with 3 lbs of gear or less is such a joy! Thanks for you very helpful postings.

    1. Thanks Cecil, I appreciate the kind comments. I came from the GX8 to the G9 and have been pleased with it as you’ve seen from my posts. I think that Sony is probably still the best at autofocus for birds in flight but I continue to prefer the G9 for my needs because of its size and other features like the 6K mode. The latest autofocus improvements do seem like a significant improvement.

  2. Excellent article Peter-thanks for posting it.

    I recently bought a G9 and sold my G85…but kept my little GX85. I take a lot of photos since I’m recently retired guy and now spend my days hiking or skiing with my dogs out in the forests surrounding my home in Northern Ontario Canada.

    The G9 has been a great improvement in every way over the G85. I tried the animal focus yesterday on my dogs on the run and it worked great.

    Your illustrations featuring the deer in the grasses was exactly the type of situation I found frustrating. The G85’s AF drove me nuts trying to pick out birds in the trees around my feeders or Ruffed Grouse in spruce trees.

    Looking forward to future posts from you.

    Marko K

    1. Thanks Marko! Glad to hear that you’ve also had a good experience with the G9 and the new animal focus. I did a bit more testing this past weekend and it has continued to work well.

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