UPDATE: This article refers to an old model.
Click here to learn about the new Panasonic Lumix GF3.
Despite their small size, mirrorless compact digital cameras have become the next big thing in the photography world. More of these raw-shooting, lens-changing minis throw their hats in the ring everyday. Is the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1 a worthy contender?
In This Corner, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1
In the fast-paced digital cameras world, the Panasonic GF1 is not exactly new: it’s been around for about a year. But it is new to me.
I began searching for the perfect compact camera a few months ago. Since then, I’ve checked out a lot of cameras – and reviewed some of them. Let’s see if the GF1 has what it takes to earn a place in this travel photographer’s camera bag.
I’ve been working with the GF1 for a few weeks now. Specifically, I’ve been testing the Panasonic kit DMC-GF1C-K which includes the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1 camera and Panasonic Lumix G 20mm f/1.7 lens.
The kit came with the latest firmware installed: version 1.2 for the camera and 1.1 for the lens.
The GF1 is built to micro-four-thirds standards, so I was also able to test it with my Olympus 14-42mm zoom lens.
Why Use a Compact Camera Like the GF1?
I pack at least two cameras when I travel. In the past, I’ve carried two SLR’s. Now, for some trips, the compact will take the place of one of them. Let’s see how I might use a compact:
- To complement my big-rig Nikon D300, I’ll use it for quick wide-angle shots when I have a long lens on the D300.
- As a lightweight all-around camera when I don’t feel like carrying my usual 20-pounds-plus camera bag.
- For creative inspiration, I’ll use some of the artistic shooting modes built into the latest crop of compacts.
- For fun I’ll attach odd lenses such as my Nikon F-mount Lensbaby. With an adapter, some of these compacts can use lenses meant for different cameras.
- For less intrusive candid photos. People who might shy away from a photographer aiming a big lens their way are often more comfortable facing a small camera.
- I’m no videographer, but I’d like to record an occasional movie.
Compact Camera Requirements
I need to be able to submit images to my stock photography agency, so with all of this in mind, here’s my revised list of required and nice-to-have features:
- Raw capture. This is a must-have feature that eliminates the vast majority of small JPEG-only cameras on the market today. I shoot raw – or raw plus JPEG – almost exclusively, so this is a biggie.
High-quality images suitable for publication (required).
- Good performance in low light with high ISO settings up to 400 – although 800 would be better.
- Easy access to frequently-used settings.
- True HD-quality movies.
- Raw+JPEG mode that lets me record a high-quality jpeg.
- Built-in flash, preferably a pop-up.
- Optical viewfinder. These are extremely rare, but some cameras offer an optional electronic viewfinder which is almost as good.
- A tilting LCD would be nice.
- Small size. Pocket-sized would be great, but the currently available pocket cameras don’t make the grade.
- Reasonably priced in the neighborhood of $500 to $800. (Funny how my limit keeps going up).
The first thing I noticed about the Panasonic GF1 was its no-nonsense look. The GF1 will not win any awards for style. If the Sony NEX-5 that I reviewed earlier is a sleek Ferrari, the GF1 is a pickup truck: it won’t turn many heads, but it gets the job done.
Unlike the Sony NEX-5, the Panasonic GF1 has plenty of buttons and controls dedicated to specific functions we photographers use often. The GF1 gives us quick access to things like drive mode, auto or manual focus, ISO and exposure compensation.
The buttons are well positioned: there is plenty of room to hold the camera without inadvertently pushing one of them. Smaller cameras such as the Canon G11 have to pack the buttons so close together that there’s little space left for your fingers.
The GF1 has a pop-up flash which is handy for fill flash as well as a hot shoe for more sophisticated lighting options.
For still images, the GF1 supports four aspect ratios: 3:2, 4:3, 16:9 and 1:1. Oddly enough, although the native sensor ratio is 4:3, the LCD is 3:2. So, at any aspect ratio setting other than 3:2, black bars fill in the edges of the LCD screen.
The GF1 has plenty of menu options, but no in-camera tips to explain them. Some other cameras do offer simple tips on-screen, but with the GF1 you’ll need to refer to the user manual for that. Fortunately, Panasonic believes in providing plenty of information to its customers: the GF1’s Operating Instructions manual is 203 information-packed pages.
Here’s a nice surprise: with the 20mm f/1.7 pancake lens attached, the GF1 will fit into my pants cargo pocket!
Image Quality and Low Light Performance
Raw images from the Panasonic GF1 are considerably noisier at all ISO settings than those from my Olympus E-P1.
I’m not sure why, but noise has been a problem with all the small Panasonic’s that I’ve worked with including the LX-2 and LX-3.
At ISO 400 and below, some careful noise reduction in Lightroom 3 or your favorite image editor will result in usable images. Even ISO 100 images will require some noise reduction. Depending on the amount of detail in the image, at ISO 800 you might be able to salvage an image. Above that, don’t even bother.
Fortunately, the GF1 does not have a problem with purple fringing or other color aberrations. Even in high contrast images – whether using the Panasonic 20mm or Olympus 14-42mm lens – I did not notice any colored outlines around objects.
The bottom line is this: although I would not describe the Panasonic GF1 as a good low-light camera even with the fast f/1.7 lens, after a little computer work it can produce publication-quality images.
the Panasonic Lumix G 20mm f/1.7 Lens
The Lumix G 20mm f/1.7 lens is a wonderfully creative tool. If you’re used to shooting with zooms, a fixed focal length lens like this 20mm will require you to re-think your photos.
You’ll shoot a bit differently with this lens. Since zooming is accomplished by walking toward or away from your subject instead of turning a ring, you’ll find yourself exploring new compositional techniques.
Wide open at f/1.7, the Lumix lens blurs backgrounds nicely creating beautiful bokeh. The larger sensor size also makes a contribution here. Larger sensors naturally have less depth-of-field than smaller ones. If you prefer more of your image to be in focus, the Lumix 20mm can be stopped down to f/16.
The 20mm lens is threaded to accept 46mm filters including polarizers. The front lens element does not rotate during focusing, so the polarizer won’t move as you focus.
Lens Compatibility: Micro-Four-Thirds Lenses
The Panasonic GF1 uses a standard micro-four-thirds lens mount, so any lens designed for that mount will fit on the GF1.
Currently, Panasonic makes eight lenses that will fit the GF1 which cover a range of focal lengths (in 35mm equivalents) from 14mm to 400mm. Olympus makes six more with equivalent focal lengths up to 600mm.
Micro-four-thirds sensors have a field-of-view multiplier (also called “crop factor”) of 2X. So, a lens with an physical focal length of 300mm sees the same field of view as a 600mm on a camera with a full-frame, 35mm-sized sensor.
Lens Compatibility: Nikon and Other Lenses
In addition to micro-four-thirds lenses, adapters are available that will allow you to mount lenses meant for most DSLR cameras. (TIP: You’ll need to enable SHOOT W/O LENS in the Custom Menu in order to use a lens adapter with Nikon or other manufacturers’ lenses. Otherwise, you’ll get the error message, “Please check that the lens is attached correctly.”)
I also tried my older (not VRII) Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 lens with the GF1 and the Fotodiox adapter. The 70-200mm is a G lens, so it doesn’t have an aperture ring. I shoot with it wide open all the time on my Nikon D300, so I figured I’d do the same on the GF1.
But it didn’t work. No matter how hard I tried, I could not get a sharp image with this combination. I even checked the lens again on my D300 and it does focus perfectly. Darn, it would have been nice to use the GF1’s 2X crop factor to get 400mm out of my 200mm lens.
My old Lensbaby 2.0 (since, superseded by the Lensbaby Muse) fits perfectly on the Fotodiox adapter and I found that the GF1’s focus assist makes manipulating my Lensbaby’s sweet-spot even easier on the GF1 than on my Nikon D300.
These both worked, but neither one securely attaches to the Fotodiox. Apparently, the mounting pin on the adapter is not long enough to fully engage the slot on the rear flange of the Lensbaby.
So, these lenses may unscrew themselves and fall off if you’re not careful. (Rumor: I’ve been told by a local camera shop manager that Lensbaby is working on lenses specifically for the GF1 which will eliminate this problem.)
There are dozens of lens adapters available from a handful of companies. With the correct adapter, the GF1 can use lenses from Nikon, Canon, Leica, Pentax and Minolta.
Panasonic even makes an adapter – the DMW-MA1- which allows you to use full-size four-thirds lenses on the GF1 – with autofocus.
For Nikon users, I recommend the Fotodiox Pro adapter. It works and it’s a lot cheaper than most other brands.
Fotodiox also makes adapters for all major camera brands. They cost about $30 each.
Manual Focus Assist
Manual focusing accuracy is improved by using the GF1’s manual focus assist which enlarges the LCD image by five or ten times.
The 10x enlargement is fine for tripod use, but almost impossible to use handheld because it shows a very small section of your scene highly magnified. The image jumps around too much with even the slightest movement of your lens.
The 5X magnification is useful, though. Normally, focus assist is activated when you turn the focus ring on your lens. For lenses connected via an adapter, the GF1 offers an alternative method: press the left side of the rear control dial followed by the center button of the dial to activate focus assist.
Body, Handling & Design
The GF1 has the look and feel of a first-generation camera. Its designers have made a few odd choices.
The rear thumbwheel is poorly designed. It performs double duty: turning it changes the aperture (in my favorite aperture-priority mode). Pushing it toggles between aperture and exposure compensation adjustments.
The thumbwheel is small and does not turn easily, so I often find myself pushing so hard on the wheel to make it turn that I inadvertently switch from adjusting aperture to adjusting exposure compensation. Now, I have to undo the compensation, push the button to switch back and continue my aperture adjustment. What a pain.
The thumbwheel is probably the worst part of the GF1’s design. Compared to the elegant, spindle-like thumbwheel on the rear of the Olympus E-P1, the GF1’s thumbwheel is quite primitive.
Gripping the GF1 is problematic. The right-hand grip is practically non-existent. The bulge on the front of the camera is less than ¼-inch deep. And it has a cold, slippery feel to it.
The Sony NEX-5 has the meatiest grip of any compact camera I’ve tried. To let the NEX-5 slip out of your hand, you’d have to make a good effort.
Panasonic has sacrificed a good grip for small camera body size. Not a wise trade in my opinion.
Battery life seems to be adequate. The camera goes to sleep when it hasn’t been used for a while and is easily awakened with a tap of the shutter release button. I was able to shoot for several hours without changing batteries. But, as with any camera, I recommend always carrying an extra battery.
A completely depleted battery recharges fully in a reasonably fast 2-1/4 hours.
As with most small cameras, to minimize body size, the LCD does not tilt. The Sony NEX-5 does offer a tilting LCD (it tilts up or down) and after using the Sony for a while, I was surprised at how much I missed this feature on the other cameras – especially for low angle shots.
The LCD is nice and bright. I set it to Auto where LCD brightness is automatically adjusted based on ambient light: in sunlight, the LCD gets brighter. As long as sunlight isn’t shining directly on it, the LCD is easy enough to view outdoors in this mode.
Using the GF1 on a Tripod
If you plan to use the GF1 on a tripod with a quick-release plate, you’ll want to get a small plate. There’s a little less than ¾-inch from the centerline of the tripod socket to the edge of the battery compartment door. I’ve been using a small, generic plate from Really Right Stuff that doesn’t get in the way of the battery compartment door. Most other quick-release plates will need to be removed to change the battery or SD card.
Flash: Built-In & External
The pop-up flash works well for fill as long as you’re not too far from your subject. For full flash, it has the same problem as most built-in flashes: you get that deer-in-the-headlights look because the flash is too close to the axis of the lens.
I have used the GF1’s built-in flash to trigger an off-camera slave flash (my Nikon SB-800) with mixed results. You have to rely on the auto sensor in the off-camera flash or set it to manual. I’ve come to rely on Nikon’s excellent i-TTL flash technology to get flash exposures right every time, so my manual flash skills are lacking.
Of course, you can also place an external flash such as the SB-800 in the GF1’s hot shoe, but it will still be pretty close to the lens axis and you’ll still have trouble getting the correct exposure.
If you’re going to be doing a lot of flash photography with the GF1, I’d suggest getting the dedicated Panasonic DMW-FL360. You could get the smaller and cheaper DMW-FL220, but the FL360 has a swivel head for bounce flash.
The more powerful Panasonic DMW-FL500 flash will work on the GF1 too – and it also swivels. Since Panasonic does not make an off-camera cord for the GF1, bounce flash will come in very handy for softer lighting effects.
Flash compensation (FLASH ADJUST in Panasonic lingo) is only available from the menu. There is no dedicated button. The compensation range is +/- 2 EV.
Flash sync speed is 1/160 second with choice of either the first-curtain or second-curtain sync. (Second-curtain sync causes the flash to fire at the end of the exposure rather than at the beginning. This is useful for a more natural look when creating slow-shutter-speed panning images so that light streaks trail behind the moving subject rather than in front.)
Menus, Buttons & Settings
The GF1’s six menus sport 22 pages of menu items. Some menus consist of five pages, so expect to do a lot of scrolling to get to everything.
Fortunately, by default, the GF1 remembers your last menu position, so when you leave the menu and later return, it will take you right back to the same spot. And the menus do wrap around, so if you’re on page five, you can keep going in the same direction to get back to page one without having to backtrack through four pages.
My Menu remembers your last five menu items so you can get back to them easily. The most recent items are at the top of the list and the oldest items disappear from the list as more are added.
Formatting a card requires no more than 8 button pushes. Easy access to formatting seems to be a sign of a serious camera. Cameras designed more for amateurs try to hide this important command from photographers. On the Sony NEX-5 for example, formatting requires more than 30 button pushes!
A simulated match-needle exposure meter appears on the LCD when adjusting aperture, shutter speed or compensation. In manual exposure mode, a second display shows the difference between your exposure and the metered exposure.
There is a dedicated button to access the GF1’s Quick Menu. It’s not as cool as the E-P1’s Super Control Panel, but it does provide an alternative to the main menu for some important settings including flash mode, image size, image quality and several more.
Other dedicated buttons on the rear of the camera provide instant access to focus modes (including manual focus), ISO, white balance, focus point (to move it around the screen), AF/AE lock, a customizable function button and depth-of-field preview.
Still more buttons allow you to play back images, change the amount of data displayed on the LCD and pop up the flash. Curiously, there are no dedicated buttons for flash settings or flash compensation.
On top, next to the mode dial, there’s a four-position switch to choose drive mode (single frame, continuous, auto bracketing and self-timer).
The GF1 offers a few customization methods, but again, Panasonic has made some strange choices. As I mentioned earlier, My Menu saves the last five menu positions used. Wouldn’t it make more sense to allow the photographer to deliberately add commonly used settings to My Menu?
More useful are the two – or is it four? – Custom Settings: C1 and C2. C2 actually has three settings memories. C1 and C2 are accessed from the mode dial. Instead of choosing aperture priority, for instance, you’d choose C1 or C2.
The sub-settings for C2 are available from the menu. With the dial in the C2 mode, a new “C” menu is added where you can choose from C2-1 SET 1, C2-2 SET 2 or C2-3 SET 3. With one more button push, each of these sub-settings positions display a screen full of information to remind you exactly which setting values it has stored.
The C1 position offers no such memory jogger, but most photographers will use C1 to save their everyday settings, so it should be easy enough to remember.
The Function (Fn) button can be assigned to provide instant access to Aspect Ratio, Metering Mode or Guidelines (on/off). Other, less useful assignment options include Film Mode, Quality, I.Exposure, Recording Area and Remaining Display. I prefer leaving Fn set to Aspect Ratio since I change that more often than any of the other available settings.
A final customization option – useful for JPEGs only – is called My Film. In Film mode, you can set contrast, sharpness, saturation and noise-reduction levels and save them to My Film 1 or My Film 2.
This is in addition to several color and black-and-white presets. I set My Film 1 to vivid color similar to Velvia 50 film and My Film 2 to black-and-white. Too bad there is no grain option to simulate Tri-X.
With the Panasonic GF1, there are two ways to shoot movies. Pressing the small red button on top of the camera will record without touching the mode dial. Or, set the dial to Motion Picture P mode.
In Motion Picture P mode, you’ll have a lot more control over the camera. In this mode, you can adjust exposure-compensation and depth of field, for example. And, you’ll use the main shutter release button to start and stop recording instead of the smaller red button.
Audio is recorded in mono and there is no way disable it or to connect an external microphone.
According to Panasonic, in AVCHD mode, the GF1 records a little over 30 minutes (30:30) of video in the highest quality (SH) setting. In Motion JPEG mode, it records 16:30 at the HD quality setting. But, in my tests, I only got 14:23 using a SanDisk Extreme 4GB SDHC card.
According to Panasonic, Motion JPEG movies are limited to a maximum file size of 2GB while AVCHD movies are limited only by the size of the card.
So, with AVCHD, you could conceivably pop in a 32GB card and make a 4 hour and 14 minute movie in one go. Play back a movie that long and your audience will go, too. I bet it would be a bear to edit a clip of that size. And you’ll need the optional AC adapter because your battery will die long before the card is filled up.
The GF1 offers no in-camera editing of movies – not even trimming.
To my eyes, there is no difference between video recorded in AVCHD Lite and Motion JPEG when using the highest quality settings. Movies at either setting were pretty good, though not as good as those from the Sony NEX-5.
One thing about AVCHD: it is harder to work with as software support is lacking. Windows Media Player 12 plays them, but Lightroom 3 won’t import them.
I’m currently working with three cameras – the GF1, the NEX-5 and an Olympus E-PL1– which are capable of AVCHD recording, so I’ll test their video quality a bit more thoroughly in the future. Keep an eye on PhotoCitizen.com for updates. You can subscribe if you don’t want to miss anything.
- Bulb mode up to 4 minutes
- Depth-of-field preview via dedicated button
- Three Optical Image Stabilization (OIS) modes including one for horizontal panning which only corrects vertical movement. Stabilization works only with OIS lenses since the GF1 has no in-camera stabilization. The 20mm lens does not feature OIS.
- High-speed continuous drive captures four raw files in about two seconds. Then, it takes another nine seconds to finish writing them all to the SD card (using a SanDisk 4GB Extreme SDHC card). Photos can still be captured while the data is being written, but at a slower pace.
- Built-in ultrasonic sensor cleaning is manually activated via the menu.
- The battery charger uses a 6-foot power cord, so it’s not as easy to pack as some chargers.
- Although the GF1 offers audio dubbing where an audio note – or ambient sound – can be recorded after capturing a still image, this feature does not work with raw or raw+jpeg images.
- Similarly, trimming and resizing of image works only on JPEG images, not raw or raw+jpeg images. And not movies.
- Sensor: 12.1 effective megapixels, 17.3mm by 13mm size
- Maximum Image resolution(at each aspect ratio):
- 4000 x 3000 (4:3),
- 4000 x 2672 (3:2),
- 4000 x 2248 (16:9),
- 2992 x 2992 (1:1)
- Maximum video resolution: 1280 x 720 @ 30fps in AVCHD or Motion JPEG modes (on playback, AVCHD video is converted to 60fps).
- Focus type: contrast detection.
- Metering modes: Intelligent Multiple, Center-weighted, spot.
- Shutter: Focal plane shutter with speeds from 60 seconds to 1/4000 sec. plus Bulb (maximum bulb exposure is approximately four minutes).
- AE bracketing: 3, 5 or 7 frames in 1/3 or 2/3 EV increments.
- Size: 4.7-inches wide x 2.8-inches tall x 1.4-inches deep.
- Weight: 10.05 ounces (body only) or 17 ounces ready to shoot (with 20mm lens, strap, SD card and battery).
For complete specs, visit the Panasonic website.
Comparison: GF1 vs. E-P1
Here’s a head-to-head comparison of some of the major features (and failings) of the Panasonic GF1 versus its closest rival, the Olympus E-P1.
|Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1||Olympus PEN E-P1|
|Plain Jane looks||Classy old-school style|
|One clunky thumbwheel design||Sleek thumbwheel design (2 of them)|
|One-touch movie button||Movies via mode dial only|
|Film Modes||Art Filters|
|HD Movies in AVCHD or Motion JPEG||HD Movies in Motion JPEG only|
|Built-in flash and hot shoe||Hot shoe only|
|In-lens stabilization (some lenses)||In-camera stabilization|
|Hi-res 460,000 pixel LCD||Low-res 230,000 pixel LCD|
|Noisy at all ISO’s||No noise at lowest ISO|
|Manually activated sensor cleaning||Auto sensor clean on power on/off|
|Quick Menu||Super Control Panel|
|Mono audio recording||Stereo audio recording|
Although many early comparisons between the GF1 and the Olympus E-P1 cited faster autofocus on the GF1, a recent firmware update for the E-P1 has improved the E-P1’s autofocus. I could discern no practical difference between focusing speeds of these two cameras after the firmware update.
And the Winner Is …
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1 is a solid performer with a few quirks. Its Achilles heel is the rear thumbwheel which is difficult to turn and easy to inadvertently push.
Although there is visible noise at all ISO settings – even ISO 100 – with a little post-processing noise reduction, image quality at ISO settings of 400 and below is excellent and publication-quality.
Video quality is good with room for improvement. As is, the video quality is good enough for the web and for HDTV. Viewed full-screen on a high-resolution computer monitor, however, reveals less than ideal sharpness. Audio quality is also lacking: it’s mono only with no way to connect an external mic.
The micro-four-thirds lens mount allows for a wide selection of compatible lenses, but lack of in-camera image stabilization makes Panasonic lenses the best choice. The ability to use lenses designed for DSLR cameras – via lens adapters – is a plus, but compatibility is hit-or-miss.
The size and design of the GF1 is generally good although I’d like to see a more serious finger grip for the right hand. Button layout is good and the pop-up flash is quite useful for fill flash.
The Panasonic GF1 is designed for serious photographers, but the Olympus PEN E-P1 is still superior is most important aspects.
For those of you looking to buy your first compact camera, the GF1 is a good choice. If you own an Olympus E-P1 but long for a built-in flash or better movie-making, the GF1 would be a welcome improvement.
For me, I’ll keep my E-P1 and continue looking for the perfect compact camera.