Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1

Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1 Review

The Panasonic Lumix GF1 is the lastest member of the Micro Four Thirds family. But before Micro Four Thirds, there was Four Thirds. With Olympus having produced relatively small film SLRs since at least the early 1970s, it was probably no surprise that they would partner with Kodak to introduce the Four Thirds System standard (with its sub APS-C sized sensor) as they prepared to move into the digital age. The smaller sensor helped the company produce diminutive DSLRs that carried on the Olympus tradition.

In early August 2008, Olympus and Panasonic announced the joint development of the Micro Four Thirds System standard which will permit "... the development of radically more compact and lightweight interchangeable lens type digital camera systems based on the Micro Four Thirds System standard." That press release continued:

"When compared to the Four Thirds System standard, the primary distinguishing characteristics of the Micro Four Thirds System standard are:

1. Approximately 50% shorter flangeback distance (mount-to-sensor distance)
2. 6mm smaller lens mount outer diameter
3. Electrical contacts in mount increased from 9 to 11

* Image sensor diagonal dimensions are the same for both Four Thirds System and Micro Four Thirds System standards."

That asterisked part is significant - the Panasonic GF1 we're testing today has the same physical-sized sensor as the top gun in the Olympus DSLR fleet, the E-3, but without the bulky mirror assembly of the DSLR. The net result is a fairly compact digital that can make use of not only the two Panasonic-branded lenses currently offered in-box with the camera, but some 20 Leica M/R lenses and 30 Four Thirds System lenses (with appropriate adaptors).

Sensor resolution is 12.1 megapixels and there are full manual and auto controls, plus a palette of user-established settings that rival DSLRs in number and scope. You can shoot in RAW if you choose, or RAW/JPEG combinations, and there's 1280x720 HD video in AVCHD Lite (which is more memory efficient than Motion JPEG) or Motion JPEG formats. Because of space considerations inherent in the Micro Four Thirds System, a 3.0 inch LCD monitor operating in Live View is the only means of image composition and framing for capture. An electronic view finder may be added as an option and there's a built-in dust reduction system.

The camera uses SD/SDHC memory media, and Panasonic includes a battery charger/AC adapter, battery pack, body cap, AV cable, USB connection cable, AC cable, DC cable, shoulder strap and CD-ROM software with each camera.

Panasonic would seem to have all the hardware in place to produce "pro-level picture quality in an ultra compact design" - the same sensor size as the top Olympus DSLR, a quiver of interchangeable lenses from various makers, and a camera body that is undeniably compact (in comparison to DSLRs and the larger ultrazooms). Let's see how all this comes together in the field.

The GF1 body tapes out at 2.8x4.69x1.43 inches - bigger than the deck of cards/pack of cigarettes template of the typical compact point and shoot, but very small for a camera with an interchangeable lens capability. The body is metal, seems well built and solid, and is finished with matte black paint.

Ergonomics and Controls
Featuring an overall rectangular body with rounded edges, the GF1 has a slight ridge running vertically on the right front of the body and a small thumb rest on the upper right rear. The thumb and forefinger of the right hand fall naturally to the thumb rest and shutter button, respectively.

This design and layout contributes to a fairly secure feeling during one-handed shooting, but folks moving into a GF1 from more traditional compacts may take a while to get used to the added weight - the GF1 comes in at almost 10 ounces without a lens, and the 14-45 zoom adds another 6.9 ounces.

Overall, camera balance and feel were good with this lens, and Panasonic has wisely placed no controls or sensors on the left front of the camera body that is the natural resting point for the left thumb during two-handed shooting.

One concern to prospective buyers might be if the handling characteristics experienced with the 14-45mm lens carry over when longer and heavier lenses are mounted on the camera. Switching to a faster and longer 50-200mm Zuiko zoom adds over 1.5 pounds, an inch of diameter and about 4 inches of lens length. If you think your future includes a longer lens for the GF1, try before you buy to make sure you can live with the bigger glass.

The top and back of the camera body contain all external controls and my right thumb overlapped the white balance, ISO and delete buttons to a degree, but there were no accidental activations in my time shooting the camera.

The motion picture button on the right top of the body allows you to record video with a single push from whatever shooting mode the camera is set in; a second push stops recording and returns you to the previously selected shooting mode.

Menus and Modes
As you might expect from a camera with interchangeable lenses, the GF1 has a DSLR-like forest of menus and sub-menus, and are fortunately fairly intuitive to navigate. For example, in the manual shooting modes, the record menu runs five pages alone. Then, if you select the film mode (color shooting options) sub-menu you're presented with another page that details the current selection (vibrant) along with contrast, sharpness, saturation and noise reduction adjustments. Right and left arrows next to vibrant indicate there are other color options available through scrolling (and accompanied by the same mix of adjustments for each color choice).

The GF1 also has a handy quick menu button that calls up select settings that might ordinarily be adjustments you'd like to make on the fly: a wide range of settings for manual modes with fewer options for the automatic modes.

There are nine primary shooting modes:

* Intelligent auto: fully automatic mode with camera handling most settings; user can select standard color or B&W, stabilizer mode, movie record mode/quality, still image aspect ratio, image quality and LCD mode.
* My color: fully auto shooting mode that offers 7 preset color effects, plus a custom setting; user adjustments are same as for intelligent auto.
* Scene: fully auto mode that offers 17 specific scene shooting options; user adjustments are same as for intelligent auto.
* C1/C2: fully auto modes that allow user to establish a custom shooting mode; offers expanded flash and film mode options compared to intelligent auto and adds intelligent exposure, AF mode, metering mode, exposure compensation, ISO sensitivity and white balance adjustments.
* Motion Picture P: captures video at 1280x720 resolution in either AVCHD Lite or Motion JPEG formats; there are 3 quality levels for AVCHD Lite and Motion JPEG may also record at 848x480, 640x480 or 320x240 resolutions. Playback speed is 30fps for both formats.
* Program Auto: auto mode with camera setting aperture and shutter speed; user has extensive setting options (the complete five page record menu), with flash, film mode, white balance, stabilizer mode, movie record mode and quality, aspect ratio/picture size, quality (RAW/JPEG), LCD mode, intelligent exposure, AF and metering modes, exposure compensation, aperture/shutter speed and ISO sensitivity available via quick menu.
* Aperture priority: user sets aperture, camera sets shutter speed; user inputs same as program auto.
* Shutter priority: user sets shutter speed, camera sets aperture; user inputs same as program auto.
* Manual: user sets aperture and shutter speed; user inputs same as program auto.

The GF1 boasts a 3.0 inch LCD monitor with approximately 460,000 dot composition, 7 levels of adjustment for brightness and 100% coverage. Unfortunately, there are times in bright outdoor light when the monitor can be difficult to see, even with the range of adjustments available.

There is an optional live view finder (an electronic view finder) available from Panasonic, but details on Panasonic USA's website are somewhat sketchy and we didn't get a chance to try one for this review. It offers 100% coverage and is of 202,000 dot composition, with a diopter adjustment to fit a range of eyesight. MSRP for the finder is about $200 USD.

With reading glasses now a permanent part of my wardrobe, cameras with only monitors for image composition and capture are a pain - glasses pushed down on the nose so I can see over them to locate the subject, then tip the head back to see through the glasses so the monitor is clear.

With interchangeable lenses and a sensor the same size as that in the Olympus DSLR flagship, you'd expect the GF1 might provide some real punch in the image quality department, and you wouldn't be disappointed. This camera can allow a novice plenty of point-and-shoot type options for automatic image capture yet provide an experienced user with ample tools to create to their heart's content.

Shooting Performance
The GF1 powers up quickly and displayed a focus icon in about 0.7 seconds - I got off a first shot just 0.96 seconds after powering up. Single shot-to-shot times ran about 0.9 seconds - continuous shooting with full resolution, standard quality JPEGS rang up about 3.1 fps for 10 frames, and even with fine quality JPEGS the camera managed over 2 fps.

The GF1 was perfectly content to continue on past 10, but we called a halt at that point. There's about a 0.3 or 0.4 second blackout after the first shot in the burst with fine quality, and about half that with standard quality, while images lag one shot behind the monitor - it's still easier to follow moving subjects with a DSLR, but the GF1 is much better at it than any other compact digital I've reviewed. Shutter lag came in at 0.02 seconds.

AF acquisition times are good - we measured a 0.32 second press to capture time with no pre-focus. Not quite as good as the better entry-level DSLRs, but right in stride with the middle of the pack.

The flash on the GF1 is not particularly powerful, and with the fairly slow 14-45mm zoom lens we had for this review the range was given as 3.28 feet to about 11.2 feet at auto ISO. Shooting at 100 ISO from distances of about 5 and 7 feet respectively in program auto mode, the GF1 was at the edge of its flash performance envelope.

Fortunately, the GF1 enjoys good higher ISO performance, so bumping up the ISO to 400 gives the flash the extra distance needed to produce brighter shots while retaining good image quality.

Flash recycle times at 100 ISO with a fresh battery were good - under 3 seconds for partial discharges in moderate lighting conditions and about 4.5 for full discharges in pitch black conditions. You'll want to lose the lens hood for flash photography - it casts a shadow in the lower right portion of the frame.

Lens Performance
The Panasonic 14-45mm zoom lens is fairly slow, with maximum apertures of f/3.5 and f/5.6 at the wide and telephoto ends, respectively. There is a tiny bit of barrel distortion at the wide end of the zoom, and negligible pin cushion distortion at telephoto. Edges are a bit soft at wide angle, but telephoto is pretty good across the frame.

There was a bit of chromic aberration (purple fringing) from time to time in high contrast boundary areas, but this was generally difficult to see at anything under about 300% enlargement - very good performance overall from this lens.

While the lens has a nominal zoom multiplication of about 3.2x, Panasonic has included their extended optical zoom feature that bumps this factor up by capturing images at reduced resolutions using only the center portion of the sensor.

The 14-45 lens is stabilized, with an on/off switch located on the lens barrel. The GF1 allows selection from three stabilization modes via menu - continuous, when the shutter button is pushed, or during panning.

Video Quality
The AVCHD Lite movie mode is recommended for video that will be viewed on a HDTV, and Motion JPEG for computer/internet viewing. Unfortunately, the software included with the GF1 for AVCHD playback didn't like my 64 bit Vista platform (or vice versa) so I had to do all my viewing on the camera itself. AVCHD records at 60 progressive frames per second, but the output is at 30 fps - I understand this is good for action and high speed, but I couldn't really tell much difference between it and Motion JPEG on the small screen. The Motion JPEGs looked good on the computer - video quality is quite good with this camera.

Zoom is available during video and the continuous AF catches up with zooms fairly quickly. The microphone is quite sensitive to wind noise and there are three menu settings to help reduce its impact. Motion JPEGs are limited to 2GB file size; AVCHD can go as long as 110 minutes.

Image Quality
Default images out of the GF1 were very good with regard to color, quality and sharpness, and if you shoot program auto or any of the manual modes you have a wealth of adjustments to manipulate the final result. Here are the standard, dynamic, nature, smooth, nostalgic and vibrant film modes.

Multiple metering is the default and did a good job overall. There were some lost highlights in bright contrasty scenes, but overall these were relatively isolated. Center-weighted and spot metering options are also available.

ISO noise performance predictably left compact digitals in the dust, and fell a stop or two shy of the best DSLR performance with APS-C sized sensors. The Micro Four Thirds System standard sensor is much larger than the 1/2.3" sensors that are found in so many compacts, yet about only 2/3rds as large as an APS-C sensor. With everybody putting 12 megapixels on their respective sensors, it's usually the guy with the biggest sensor who wins.

The GF1 is very clean through the 400 ISO crops, with just a hint of noise starting to creep in at 800. There's a bit more degradation at 1600 but that value is still quite good, but 3200 definitely shows the effects of rising noise levels.

The GF1 is an interesting camera with the potential to attract a wide cross-section of users. On the one hand it can appeal to novice shooters with its host of automatic and scene shooting modes, face recognition technology and compact size. More experienced hands will find a broad expanse of manual controls and adjustments to suit the fussiest of users, along with that compact size. It's small, light and slots into the gap between high end compacts and the DSLR.

The camera focuses quickly, has good shutter response and a decent continuous shooting rate. Image and video quality are very good, ISO performance leaves true compact digitals far behind, and there's a bunch of lenses that will mount on the camera with proper adaptors, and, depending on their age, provide partial to full compatibility.

On the downside, there's an adaptor for legacy Four Thirds lenses: MSRP about $170. Another for Leica M lenses at about $250, and yet a third for Leica R lenses at another $250. An electronic view finder will set you back about $200. Get one of each to go with the $900 GF1 and you're approaching $1800. A Nikon D90 and stabilized 18-200 lens will set you back under $1600, give better high ISO performance and a higher continuous shooting rate (at least for a time).

But the Nikon is much larger and heavier, and there lies the attraction of the GF1 - it puts out quality images from a relatively compact and light camera. I don't mind lugging my DSLRs around, but if I ever needed near-DSLR performance without the weight, the GF1 would be an easy choice to make.


* Light and relatively compact
* Very good image and video quality
* Good AF and shutter response
* Shoots RAW
* One button video recording


* Cost
* Monitor only standard, view finder optional