The Panasonic GF1 is the latest in line from Panasonic's G-series - a much-touted Micro Four Thirds system that offers DSLR quality in a compact body. What Digital Camera test the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1C kit with the 20mm f/1.7 pancake kit lens...
Panasonic Lumix GF1 review – Features
Brush aside any preconceptions that you may have surrounding the G-series and indeed Micro Four Thirds system and what the Panasonic GF1 leaves you with, at its most simple, is a small-bodied compact-like camera that can take gorgeous, shallow depth of field, DSLR-like images.
It’s nothing like holding or using a compact, yet nothing like using a DSLR either. It truly is an inbetweener and, with its 20mm (40mm in 35mm equivalent) f/1.7 pancake kit lens, very much takes a nod towards the old school way of shooting (at least with this particular kit format).
The ‘50mm purists’ would traditionally attach a prime lens and enjoy the restrictions of its framing, creating memorable and striking street photographs in the earlier part of the 20th century. And whilst the Panasonic Lumix GF1 fully embraces this very idea, it entirely undoes it too – as this is an interchangeable lens camera it can provide a huge scope of potential depending on which lens is on the front. It’s a balance between the old romantic and the new-age techy if you will.
Inherent in its very construction, the 12.1 megapixel Panasonic GF1 lacks a viewfinder and instead the Live MOS sensor will show everything on the rear 460K-dot 3in LCD screen in real time.
The field of view is 100%, meaning what you frame on that screen is exactly what you’ll get in the picture, unlike with many compact cameras – or even DSLRs donning less than a 100% viewfinder for that matter.
An optional electronic viewfinder (EVF) can be added via the GF1’s hotshoe at additional expense as a half-way workaround however.
Panasonic’s ‘My Colour mode’ feature enables in-camera custom or preset colouration of images from authentic black and white to silhouette mode or even more ‘fun’ options such as ‘retro’. An abundance of compact-like scene modes and intelligent Auto (iA) ensure the best shot whatever the conditions, and a new scene mode called ‘Peripheral Defocus’ allows for a cursor to be moved on the LCD screen to obtain focus at that point.
Of course fully manual options also feature and, unlike with a compact, you can focus using the lens ring itself. It’s the marriage of the simple and the complex in a very smooth transition that ought to appeal to new and experienced photographers alike. However, neither the 20mm kit lens nor body have image stabilisation and, whilst Panasonic usually opts for lens-based stabilisation, this does feel like an oversight at the price point.
As well as Raw and Jpeg shooting (simultaneously if desired), AVCHD Lite also means 720p HD movie can be recorded at the touch of a button too. For stills, a shutter speed of up to 1/4000th second provides exceptional shooting capabilities, though at a maximum of 3 frames per second continuous shooting – for up to 7 frames when shooting Raw – the burst mode isn’t a hugely strong point when compared to some super-fast DSLR cameras of late. The contrast-detect AF system can utilise up to 23 areas but, as per the burst mode, isn’t as nippy as a DSLR’s capability.
So why not buy a DLSR? Well, there are two main points.
Firstly the smaller size will make it an attractive camera to carry around.
Secondly its high-end compact-style control makes for easy, ‘non-daunting’ use. Perfect for someone serious about their photography who wants an immediately simple-to-use camera that houses highly complex possibilities too, where picture quality is paramount.
In Panasonic’s eyes – and with the notable lack of any full-on DSLR cameras of late – the G-series is the future of photography. Its general design ethos isn’t entirely unique, though the only other camera on the market that’s a close match is the Olympus E-P1 – a reimagining of the Olympus PEN from 50 years previous, albeit digital.
The Panasonic GF1 is still smaller and lighter, though the difference is slight and only by a marginal number of grams and millimeters. Not to draw away from how small this is though – with the pancake lens attached it could easily fit into a gent’s coat pocket or ladies’ handbag. That’s certainly the key in this design, its notable compactness.
In use the Panasonic GF1 is very much like a Panasonic compact in terms of menu systems and operational buttons, albeit with some additions for the more complex controls available here.
There’s a mode dial on the top, and standard d-pad on the back. The addition of a q-menu button for quick menu adjustment, an AF/MF to control focus mode and a rear thumbwheel to cycle through options, f/stops and the like escalates ease of use to the next level.
The pop-up flash is user controlled by the press of a button, allowing for discreet non-flash shots even in darker conditions.
On the movie front there’s a one-touch record button for seamless shooting between stills, or the mode is also available on the mode dial. It’s extremely easy to pick up and use, whatever your level.
Overall the Panasonic GF1 is much like a stripped down version of its bigger brother the G1, albeit without the chunky grip, DSLR-styling or articulating screen.
The camera body itself is very robust, feels well made and looks the part. It’s even available in three colours – red, black or silver (those outside of the UK have a white option too) to suit a wider audience.
Performance, Quality & Value
Panasonic Lumix GF1 review – Performance
The Panasonic GF1 out-prices even entry level DSLRs, to the point that you could almost purchase two Canon EOS 1000D kits from the web. It’s very much a DSLR in compact-skin and therefore should be considered so in comparison for this prospective level of performance.
Inherent in its design and therefore operation is that the GF1’s autofocus, like most cameras’ live view functions, is contrast detection based. This means a single sensor is used to detect the focus and record the image, compared to phase detection as used in DSLR cameras. The latter utilises a separate sensor and technology which is ultimately much quicker to determine focus.
The Panasonic contrast detect AF, however, is actually pretty good. Now it’s not going to replace your super-fast DSLR if you’re a sports photographer, but the GF1 does achieve focus with relative rapidity, depending on how far the lens has to adapt the focus from where the current focal plane happens to be. There can be some issues on subjects that lack contrast though, which may cause one or two problems.
As part of the GF1’s ease of use, there’s even a scene mode called Peripheral Defocus, which allows a cursor to be moved across the LCD screen – the camera then reads that specific area and bases focus there. Perfect when trying to pinpoint focus on a distant subject when there is a larger subject nearer camera that, usually, would be the default focus.
However, as this is considered a scene mode, there can be a lack of compatibility with other modes; it’s not possible to use it with My Colour modes for example. Should all this talk of auto focus turn your nose and you’re one for the more traditional manual focus approach then the GF1 can cater with no troubles whatsoever; the LCD can even show a magnified area to ensure crisp focus.
Image Stabilisation lacks with the 20mm f/1.7 pancake lens, nor does the GF1 have stabilisation in body. Panasonic’s approach is usually to provide stabilised lenses, so for this to lack here feels like an omission.
However, the lens itself is a great thing to behold, largely for its wide aperture, which immediately asserts that this is a million miles from a compact, despite the camera’s looks.
At a fixed focal length of 20mm (40mm equivalent) it’s certainly a perfect portrait lens, though some may find this a little restrictive. It would seem with such a small lens attached Panasonic is selling the idea of ultra-compactness given that the GF1 fails to look quite so small with a huge lens on its front. There is a DMC-GF1K package with a 14-45mm stabilised kit lens should this feel like a more appropriate package however.
In keeping with attracting a new audience the GF1 also offers a variety of in-camera effects modes. Far from gimmicky, the My Colour mode provides presets from monotone to silhouette, with others such as ‘Retro’ casting the image with 70’s ‘dated’ appeal and ‘Expressive’ which saturates colours for bright, punchy images. Intelligent Auto (iA) makes best use of cleverly recognising the scene at hand to optimise settings – perfect for beginners. Quickly switch to manual mode and the rear thumbwheel makes adjusting aperture and shutter speed a breeze, putting you in full control.
Flavour of 2009 sees movie modes entering the stills market in abundance. The GF1 takes full advantage, but cuts no corners. AVCHD Lite provides 720p HD movies captured at 50 or 60 frames per second and utilises the H.264 compression codec for what is seen as the current best compression. Autofocus and zoom during recording are possible, though the focus can overshoot the mark slightly before finding correct focus – still pretty impressive compared to a number of DSLR systems which can’t autofocus during recording.
Panasonic Lumix GF1 review – Image Quality
Panasonic GF1 review – Tone & Exposure
The GF1 exposures are generally quite conservative, meaning highlights wont blow out. Tonally the default is rather neutral, but in-camera Film Mode options will cater for personal contrast adjustment.
Panasonic GF1 review – Raw & Jpeg
The GF1 comes bundled with Silkypix 3, which is capable of reading the RW2 files when shooting Raw. Silkypix is a capable program, though not particularly speedy at reading large files. At present Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) hasn’t released a new update to allow direct Photoshop and ACR read, though this will undoubtedly follow soon.
By default the GF1’s Raw files are unprocessed, therefore show much more noise at higher ISO settings but are much smoother at lower ISO sensitivities (due to no sharpening through processing). Greater overall detail is available though due to no compression, making it a good format to work from if you wish to be highly particular about your images but not if short on time.
Panasonic GF1 review – Colour & White Balance
Colour is generally neutral, though the GF1’s in-camera My Colour modes can easily adjust this to your liking. White balance is rather inaccurate between various ISO settings however, even in controlled light, though for standard shooting it has a natural balance when shooting on auto white balance.
Panasonic GF1 review – ISO & Image Noise
Image noise is kept to a minimum, with a desirable and realistic subtle grain until around ISO 800. Above that there’s notable colour noise, which is particularly prevalent at ISO 3200 – though it’s not overly destructive to the image’s detail, so some post-production noise reduction can help.
Panasonic GF1 review – Detail & Sharpness
Images are well defined as you’d expect from the Micro Four Thirds sensor size, though perhaps a little less sharp than anticipated, especially from the prime 20mm pancake lens. There’s plenty of detail in shot and it’s DSLR-rivaling in this respect.
Panasonic Lumix GF1 review – Value For Money
The GF1 doesn’t come cheap, but it is an investment. With Panasonic promising three new lenses next year: A 100-300mm f/4.5.6, an 8mm fisheye and 14mm f/2.8 pancake lens; it’s clear that the company’s time, money and effort is set into the G-series and Micro Four Third system.
At a year old, the G-system is still in relative infancy, and for that privilege of new technology you pay a premium. With the 20mm pancake lens included in the box the total stands at £783 – not cheap by any margin, but then it’s the best of its type at this price point. The AF system is better than the Olympus E-P1 too, and there aren’t really any similar contenders to be had at this moment in time.
<!– Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1C review pages:
– Page 1: Panasonic Lumix GF1 review – Features & Design
– Page 2: Panasonic review – Performance, Image Quality & Value
– Page 3: Panasonic Lumix GF1 review specifications / specs
– Page 4: Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1C review verdict
Panasonic Lumix GF1 – other What Digital Camera links:
– Compare the Panasonic GF1 with other Micro Four Thirds cameras
– Panasonic Lumix GF1 review – product images
– Panasonic GF1 review – sample test image gallery
The Panasonic GF1 makes best sense of the Micro Four Thirds format by kicking all the unnecessary DSLR-styling to the kerb.
What remains is a compact-sized camera with a deceptive amount of oomph tucked away on the inside, plus the 20mm f/1.7 pancake lens is highly effective.
It’ll appeal to a wide ranging audience that want a small bit of kit to produce excellent pictures, though more traditional photographers will still find a DSLR provides better use.
There’s certainly some room for improvement (especially the price), but it’s generally good news all round. Picture quality is excellent, it’s easy to pick up and use from the getgo and performance is a fair marriage of compact-meets-DSLR.
Ultimately, if you’re in the market for this sort of a camera – where comparably small and light competitors come very few and far between – then the GF1 is certainly the best one on the market.
The GF1 makes best sense of the Micro Four Thirds format by kicking all the unnecessary DSLR-styling to the kerb. What remains is a compact-sized camera with a deceptive amount of oomph tucked away on the inside, plus the 20mm f/1.7 pancake lens is highly effective. It'll appeal to a wide ranging audience that want a small bit of kit to produce excellent pictures, though more traditional photographers will still find a DSLR provides better use. There's certainly some room for improvement (especially the price), but it's generally good news all round. Picture quality is excellent, it's easy to pick up and use from the getgo and performance is a fair marriage of compact-meets-DSLR. Ultimately, if you're in the market for this sort of a camera – where comparably small and light competitors come very few and far between – then the GF1 is certainly the best one on the market.