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Review: Panasonic DMC-GF1

Review: Panasonic DMC-GF1
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The DMC-GF1 is Panasonic's latest creation for the Micro Four-Thirds camera market. Will it fall flat or rise above the competition?

Electronic Viewfinder

To line up your shot, you can use the GF1's LCD screen, which is large, accurate and easy to use. However, it does struggle in bright sunlight. The solution: an electronic viewfinder, sold by Panasonic as an optional extra.

While we were very impressed by the viewfinders on the G1 and GH1--480,000 pixels, a great refresh rate and a decent enlargement--we can't say the same about this one. It only displays 202,000 pixels and enlarges the image to 0.52x rather than 0.7x.

That said, it's a very practical solution that works with any lens that you use. It's flexible and includes a button to toggle between focusing on the screen and using the viewfinder.

Going against the trend for miniaturization in the electronics world, SLR cameras aimed at amateurs and professionals alike still come in relatively bulky frames.  Recently however, the new micro four-thirds format has opened the way for Panasonic and Olympus to produce less imposing cameras which are nevertheless equipped with sensors that are larger than those found on the majority of compact digital cameras. 

The first models to use this new technology, the Panasonic G1 and GH1, were clearly descended from earlier generations of SLR cameras, but the Olympus Pen E-P1 and this new GF1 both represent a more radical departure from the norm.

Handling

A lot of photographers are attracted to the quality of the images that an SLR can produce, but are less certain about whether they really want to lug a big heavy camera around.  If you want a large sensor in a compact body, the only place to look is Sigma, whose DP1 and DP2 cameras, with fixed 28 mm and 41 mm lenses respectively, both share a Foveon X3 sensor in the APS-C format of 20.7 x 13.8 mm.  You can also look into cameras from Leica, but purchasing one will require a second mortgage on your house.  In the golden days of film, compacts with interchangeable lenses were much more common--the Contax Zeiss Ikon was one great example, for instance.

With the micro four-thirds sensor (17.3 x 13 mm), Panasonic and Olympus are trying to produce a more compact range of digital cameras with advanced features and the all important system of interchangeable lenses that allows the photographer to choose the right lens for the job.  The very first examples, the Panasonic G1 and GH1, although very successful, weren't truly representative of the micro four-thirds format.  We had to wait for the Olympus Pen E-P1 to see the kind of innovation some photographers were waiting for.  With the GF1, it's now Panasonic's turn to produce a genuinely compact camera with interchangeable lenses.

Specifications
Sensor
Live MOS 12 megapixels (17.3 x 13 mm)
Zoom
None
Optical Stabilization
None
Memory
SD/SDHC
Sensitivity (ISO)
Auto / 100 / 200 / 400 / 800 / 1600 / 3200
Video Mode
1280 x 720 pixels @ 60 fps
Power Source
Li-ion with ID-Security (7.2 V, 1250 mAh)
Dimensions/Weight
4.69" x 208" x 1.43" mm / 10.05 oz.

With a 20 mm f/1.7 pancake lens, the GF1 is a very attractive proposition.  It's not as small as the Panasonic LX3 or the Ricoh GRD III, but it will easily fit into a small bag or a large pocket, and will slide easily inside your coat.  The build quality is impeccable and the aluminum frame is a real treat to use.  All of the controls are right at your fingertips, making it very easy to get the hang of the camera.  The interface is reasonably similar to other Lumix cameras, and includes the Q-Menu button to give direct access to the main settings.  The four-way directional control allows you to adjust sensitivity, light levels or white balance on the fly, and you can program the fourth button, Fn, with a setting of your choice.  A click wheel at the back also allows you to scroll to adjust the values shutter and aperture priority in manual mode.  To switch from one setting to the other, you just need to push the wheel in, which makes it easier to switch from aperture to shutter in priority mode with just a single step.  Our only criticism is that the wheel itself is rather lightweight and would be easier to find if it were more substantial.

The top of the camera is just as well-equipped, with a popup flash (which is bright enough to avoid red eye), a hotshoe for accessories, a scroll wheel to choose between P, S, A, M and two custom modes, the shutter release and a button to launch video recording.  This last feature is an innovation borrowed from the Panasonic TZ7 and we're glad to see it.  If we really wanted to nitpick, it would have been great to have a smaller screen to show the values for the main settings like sensitivity, aperture and shutter speed to check them quickly to save battery power without activating the main screen.

Although the GF1 has a lot of features and will be a great asset to a knowledgeable photographer, the iA--intelligent automatic--mode is exceptional, and detects scenes, movements and faces all by itself.

The 3-inch LCD screen has a resolution of 460,000 pixels and is easy to use indoors.  In bright sunlight, it's too glossy, so you'll probably prefer the electronic viewfinder--though as it's an extra option, so your wallet might appreciate it less.  The display remains reasonably fluid in most situations, and the viewing angles are wide enough.  A rotating screen would certainly have been a welcome addition, but the GF1 would have been bigger as a result.

The autofocus is just as fast and enjoyable as the earlier models (G1 and GH1).  It's a lot faster than the majority of today's compact digital cameras.  Its 23 point autofocus system can keep up with entry-level SLRs and beats the Olympus Pen E-P1.  The powerful face detection system helps produce perfect portraits with good exposure.

Switching the camera on is quite fast, and the time you have to wait for images to be saved to the memory card isn't problematic.  A burst mode which struggles to reach 3 fps is disappointing.

Image Quality

Unfortunately, the GF1 has the same sensor as the G1, not the one found in the GH1.  Nevertheless, it still uses the Venus Engine HD image treatment chip.  The upshot of all this is that the GF1 produces good quality photos: electronic noise is well-handled up to 800 ISO, and even 1600 ISO in some circumstances.  White balancing is accurate under natural light and pleasantly warm under artificial light, though some people may find it a little too orange.

The exposure meter with 144 zones is pretty accurate, but with some photos, the results were very under-exposed.  Although it's a problem that is easy to correct, the fact that it seems to happen at random can be frustrating.

The 20 mm f/1.7 captures enough light without needing any stabilization.  Panasonic has instead included stabilization in the lenses themselves, while Olympus kept it in the camera.  Apart from a few specific cases, then, you won't be able to use Olympus lenses on this Panasonic camera--which is a shame, because Panasonic's lenses aren't the cheapest.

Some people will be disappointed to learn that the 1080p HD video mode found on the GH1 hasn't returned here, but 720p video at 60 fps is present--although it's actually interlaced, with the sensor providing 30 fps--which takes up less room on your memory card or computer.  On the other hand, the mono microphone and lack of input for an external mic are more troubling.  In AVCHD mode, the quality of the video is fine, although the autofocus is a little slow at following subjects, but it works.  If you're looking to edit your video afterwards, then Motion Jpeg is a better choice, but you'll be able to see the effects of compression if you play the video back on a large TV.  The fact that there's no image stabilization doesn't help video mode much either.

Compared to the Olympus E-P1

Although the Olympus Pen E-P1 is a more stylish with a distinctive look, the Panasonic GF1 takes the lead in just about every area: it has faster autofocus, more powerful video, a better LCD screen, an (electronic) viewfinder that works with all lenses and a built-in flash.

Panasonic DMC-GF1
ProsCons
  • Fast autofocus and powerful iA mode
  • Image quality up to 800-1600 ISO
  • 720p HD video with continuous autofocus
  • Interchangeable lenses with powerful anti-dust system
  • Small (with 20 mm lens); elegant and powerful
  • No built-in optical image stabilization
  • Electronic viewfinder could do better
  • Scroll wheel too small
  • Mechanical shutter is loud
  • Tends to under-expose some photos.

Panasonic has produced an excellent camera in the GF1. It's relatively small, fast and produces images whose quality is miles ahead of average compacts. Although it's not entirely free of faults, the GF1 is a great choice for anybody who's ready to try the Micro Four-Thirds format and the new lenses that go with it.

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  • 1 Hide
    Anonymous , November 11, 2009 12:27 PM
    "In the golden days of film, compacts with interchangeable lenses were much more common--the Contax Zeiss Ikon was one great example, for instance."

    WHAT?!?!? Are you talking about classic rangefinder Contax models such as the IIa? These were hardly "compacts"; they were professional system cameras that competed with the Leicas of the same era.

    The later Contax compacts such as the T and T2 were terrific little cameras -- but they were made by Kyocera, not Zeiss-Ikon, and did NOT have interchangeable lenses.

    Just trying to understand what you are trying to say here...
  • 1 Hide
    Anonymous , November 11, 2009 1:27 PM
    "The 20 mm f/1.7 captures enough light without needing any stabilization"

    Not really shure what you mean here...... If the lens had been equipped with stabilization it would have been even more useful, i my opinion.
  • 0 Hide
    ontwerp , November 11, 2009 4:45 PM
    "who's ready to try the Micro Four-Thirds format ", not really positive huh?
    Olympus E-p2 is out so now we have 3 micro four thirds in the shop in Jan '10.
    So I'll what another 6 months to see if Panasonic will kill Olympus' Pen2 with a gf2!
    Panasonic : why not go Full HD, external stereo mic [including non panasonic!], even smaller
    body ??
  • 0 Hide
    ontwerp , November 11, 2009 4:46 PM
    ontwerp"who's ready to try the Micro Four-Thirds format ", not really positive huh?Olympus E-p2 is out so now we have 3 micro four thirds in the shop in Jan '10.So I'll wait another 6 months to see if Panasonic will kill Olympus' Pen2 with a gf2!Panasonic : why not go Full HD, external stereo mic [including non panasonic!], even smallerbody ??

  • 0 Hide
    sailfish , November 11, 2009 4:50 PM
    It would have been helpful to rate them with their full grown cousins in terms of features and picture quality.
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , November 11, 2009 6:32 PM
    "Panasonic has instead included stabilization in the lenses themselves, while Olympus kept it in the camera. Apart from a few specific cases, then, you won't be able to use Olympus lenses on this Panasonic camera--which is a shame, because Panasonic's lenses aren't the cheapest."

    That is completely wrong. You can use the Olympus Micro Four Thirds lenses on the GF1. You won't have image stabilization, but other than that, they work perfectly.

    You can also use the regular (i.e., non-Micro) Olympus Four Thirds lenses on the GF1 is you use the special adapter that's sold separately, but autofocus is only supported with a small subset of them.
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , November 12, 2009 7:05 AM
    "Apart from a few specific cases, then, you won't be able to use Olympus lenses on this Panasonic camera"

    Huh? You mean people ONLY take photos when the light is so low that photos require stabilization? The Oly 14-42 @14mm can't be used to take pix in Death Valley at noon? C'mon - sure, the mismatch (lens vs body) in stabilization favors the Oly body, but it doesn't preclude using Oly lenses on the Panny in most cases.

    Looking like the E-P1 is the indoor camera and the GF-1 the outdoor camera.

    Oly better step up the lens offerings, though. What with the noted blurring using the collapsible 14-42 (only on the E-P1) and the poor performance of their 17 (esp. compared to the Panny 20mm).

    It's hard to work up much enthusiasm for Oly's m4/3 lenses. Panasonic already offers the excellent 7-14mm and fast 20mm and a decent kit zoom. Olympus's "road map" for lenses is promising Johnny-come-lately Oly versions of the same.

    And what's the demand for an 8mm fisheye when we already have a 7mm rectilinear? How about a fast prime normal/portrait?

    Olympus offered some great lenses in regular 4/3 mount, but they obviously have lagged behind Panasonic (Leica?) in smaller designs for m4/3.
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , December 26, 2009 10:46 AM
    Re: the Contax comments - If there was an adapter for the GF1 to take my Contax G prime lenses that would be a winner- JT
  • 0 Hide
    jackplug , December 27, 2009 4:15 PM
    Herds of Wilderbeast rampaging across the plains, unquestioningly hurtling onwards ever onwards. Until one stands still and says, "What is the point of video in a still camera, or have I missed something?"
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