The new Panasonic Lumix GF2 is the world's smallest and lightest interchangeable lens camera to come complete with a built-in flash and touchscreen technology. But how does it compare to other compact system cameras out now? The Panasonic Lumix GF2 review finds out...
The Compact System Camera market has gone from strength to strength
in the past year. What was once a Panasonic and Olympus only club has
since seen independent models released from both Sony and Samsung. Back in November 2009 we reviewed the Panasonic Lumix GF1, the precursor to this latest model and, at the time, what we thought was the epitome of what Compact System Cameras should be: small, light, and compact-like yet with DSLR-esque characteristics and qualities. Fast forward just over a year and the Panasonic Lumix GF2 sticks to its guns by offering much the same package, yet trims more size and weight away from its previous incarnation, coming in at some 19% smaller and 7% lighter.
Panasonic Lumix GF2 review – Features
The 12.1-megapixel Live MOS sensor at the camera’s heart is the very same as that found in the GF1 before it, though the latest Venus Engine FHD (Full High Definition) upgrades a couple of areas: Firstly video capture is increased from AVCHD Lite at 720p to AVCHD at 1080i; secondly the latest engine enables the sensitivity to push a stop further, allowing for ISO 6400 to be selected at the top-end.
The same 3in, 460k-dot resolution as per the GF1 screen still features, though this is now touch-capable and can be utilised to control any and all of the camera’s functions to some degree.
As well as full manual controls, there’s the option of clicking the new one-touch iA (intelligent Auto) button for automated control should you wish to let the camera take over. It’s ideal for point-and-shoot work or more complex and demanding scenarios depending on your level.
As well as both Raw and JPEG shooting, in-camera My Color Mode also provides an array of colour types and styles, such as ‘Retro’, ‘Silhouette’, ‘Monochrome’ and many more that can be applied to your shots.
Panasonic Lumix GF2 review – Design
Small is definitely the first word that springs to mind when holding the Panasonic Lumix GF2. With the slender 14mm lens attached it can even fit into a coat pocket and it’s not actually much bigger than the Lumix LX5 compact camera. A pretty impressive feat.
Panasonic still maintains the balance of size to functionality, however, in that the body’s not too small and certainly doesn’t feel disproportioned. Although not actually smaller than Sony’s NEX series, the GF2 does come with an in-built flash unit and, as it has a smaller sensor size, its lenses are proportionally smaller too.
The one arguably erroneous update this model sees is the absence of a mode dial that, in keeping with its touchscreen ethos, is ‘adsorbed’ into the camera’s menu system. Although there’s not bags of spare space on top of the camera, it does feel that removing such a hub of control limits the immediacy of functionality that was so great about the original GF1. Though, on the plus side, the illumination of the options on the LCD screen itself does mean that finding modes in the dark is easier.
The design means that touchscreen control is relatively optional rather than essential, ensuring that button-based back ups are always available. It’s good to be able to fall back on a duality of control and the touchscreen control buttons themselves have been made larger for easier use – an improvement over the first Lumix with touch-control, the G2.
One-touch movie and iA (intelligent Auto) buttons can now be found on top of the camera, and the latter lights up blue when pressed to visually display its use.
Panasonic Lumix GF2 review – Performance
The Panasonic Lumix GF2 feels much like an amalgamation of the GF1 and G2 models also found in the Lumix G-series range. There are certainly some advancements over its predecessor in its control mechanism, and the touchscreen is generally responsive. This is great for quick selecting a focus point by pressing a finger directly on the screen itself, and modes such as Peripheral Defocus (which allows a square selection on the camera’s screen to be the point of focus) can be dragged around in real time for smooth refocusing that’s particularly impressive in movie mode. It’s not entirely perfect however, and those familiar with the ultra-quick responses of current Smartphones may not (at least initially) feel at home. The occasional button requires a more assertive or double tap to ensure the press is registered.
The screen itself is 3in and a reasonable 460k-dot resolution, but it’s really the angle of view that poses its biggest problem: when attempting to view from a more-than-moderate angle the perception of accurate exposure is entirely lost and, as it’s not uncommon to shoot with the camera above or below eye-level, this can be frustrating.
Focusing speed isn’t as fast as a DSLR would be as the GF2’s reliance on slower contrast-detection AF doesn’t match up by comparison. However the general speed and accuracy is good, though there’s still room from improvement (something that the forthcoming GH2 has succeeded in doing with its ‘light speed’ focusing, which sadly isn’t to be found here). The focus-area also suffers from some limitations due to its largely centrally-arranged positioning, causing issues with focusing towards the edge of the frame.
In keeping with both the small size and style there’s no built-in viewfinder, though an optional electronic viewfinder (EVF) accessory can be applied via the hotshoe. But at the cost of around an extra £200 this certainly isn’t an accessory to be taken lightly in terms of overall price.
The 14mm f/2.5 kit lens equates to 28mm in full-frame (35mm) terms, which is fairly wide angle. A prime lens does mean utmost quality is at your fingertips, but the lack of a zoom will prove limiting for many prospective purchasers. The 14-42mm kit or dual kit lens options may prove more user-friendly for general use.
The zoom ring on the 14mm is fairly stiff and, given its small size, the fingers do feel rather close to the camera body itself. Furthermore such a wideangle lens ought to lend itself well to close-up shooting, but with a minimum focus distance of 18cm from the lens, the macro performance of the 14mm is disappointing (presumably to avoid further barrel distortion).
Panasonic Lumix GF2 – 3D lens
Those looking to step into the 3D world will be pleased to know that a 12.5mm (65mm equivalent) f/12 lens is also available. By recording two images across the sensor a 2.2MP image can be rendered as an MPO file and played back on a compatible 3DTV or device. Although 2.2MP may sound small it’s actually a perfect fit for HDTV. The lens works well, though it’s very much point and shoot as the focus point is fixed and the aperture can’t be adjusted which may limit the potential use, but is there to ensure the most realistic results. They’re good, so long as objects aren’t too close to the edge of the frame or excessively close to the camera itself.
Speed isn’t a particular strong point of the Lumix GF2, but then that’s unlikely to be in the mind of those purchasing it. Long exposures take as long to process as they do to shoot, i.e. a 30 second exposure takes an additional 30 seconds to process and clear the buffer (during which time an egg timer displays and it’s not possible to continue shooting). The burst mode can shoot at 3.2fps though can only manage four consecutive frames (less than its claimed seven). JPEG-only shooting allows for unlimited frames to be reeled off with little bother.
The battery life shows as a three-bar display that can deplete fairly quickly depending on use. As using the GF2 will always depend on live view mode, the relay of vast amounts of visual information doesn’t help the battery life last.
Panasonic Lumix GF2 review – Image Quality
Panasonic GF2 – Tone & Exposure
Exposure is relatively conservative and does a good job of not blowing out highlights. Sometimes this will lead to shadow areas that are a bit too shadowy, so keep your finger at the ready to apply a bout of exposure compensation (of course this is better than losing all detail in the initial shot).
The LCD screen does need to be viewed straight-on for an accurate exposure assessment however – tilt it to an angle and the perceived exposure is inaccurate (one of the LCD’s biggest issues).
Panasonic GF2 review – RAW vs JPEG
The Lumix GF2 comes with SilkyPix 3.1 in the box which will be needed to read the Raw files (until Adobe et al introduce patch updates for respective Raw-reading software).
The software is fairly capable, but lacks the same level of speedy response that pay-for editing software often delivers.
By default the GF2’s Raw files remain unprocessed, save for the in-camera barrel distortion correction that’s an essential to counter the shallow flange distance inherent in the G-series build. While Raw files certainly show more image noise, there’s greater overall detail to play with thanks to no processing or compression. However, the noise levels at higher ISO settings are fairly interfering to final quality.
Panasonic GF2 – Colour & White Balance
Colour is generally neutral when using Auto White Balance. It’s when selecting from the My Colour modes that there’s greater room for pronouncing colours as these in-camera adjustments also include a Custom setting option to adjust Colour, Brightness, Saturation and Contrast.
Panasonic GF2 – ISO Sensitivity & Image Noise
Given how far both DSLR and Compact System Cameras have come along in the past year the Lumix GF2 has a lot to live up to, but it doesn’t especially raise the bar above and beyond its GF1 predecessor. And given that 15 months have passed a lot of the competition has begun to sail past in the quality stakes.
The main issue is that there’s some presence of noise even at the lower ISO settings and, in fact, even low ISO long exposures exhibit JPEG artefacts and more softness than anticipated.
ISO 100-200 are of a good quality, though grain becomes apparent from ISO 400 and colour noise begins to show visibly at ISO 800. Probably about a stop sooner than on some other cameras. ISO 1600-3200 are fairly noisy and the addition of ISO 6400 is to little avail given the lack of detail and significant noise. Shoot at the lower ISO settings or on auto ISO and you’ll be fine. The benefit of having a fast-aperture lens means you’re less likely to need the higher sensitivities, but a word of caution to those looking for uber-detailed low-light shots (at high ISO).
Panasonic GF2 – Sharpness & Detail
Images are fairly well defined as you’d expect from the Micro Four Thirds sensor size. There’s enough detail in shots, though the higher sensitivity ISO settings quickly diminish quality due to noise reduction processing. Plus the in-camera barrel distortion applied to the wideangle lenses is rather severe which will cause further softness particularly towards the edges.
Movie Mode & Quality
Panasonic Lumix GF2 review – Movie/Video Mode & Quality
Panasonic GF2 – Movie/Video Quality
Movie mode is s activated by using the one-touch movie button on top of the camera. The horizontal element of your frame is maintained, but should you be shooting 16:9 ratio, the vertical run of the frame suffers a crop across the top and bottom. Irritatingly there are no visible crop marks to compensate for this in advance which causes some bother when composing.
The quality of the movie files themselves utilises and impressive bitrate (when capturing using AVCHD) for utmost quality. These files need to be processed using a computer before they can be edited and utilised off-camera and a non-formatted card will persist in failing to deliver the captured files (an issue with AVCHD across all cameras, not just the Panasonic). There is also a Motion-JPEG capture format which requires no off-camera processing, which offers a best capture of 720p at 30fps.
The fullest 1920 x 1080 definition is limited to interlaced capture at 50 fields per second (output at 25 frames per second), i.e. half the lines are captured in one frame, the other half in the next frame. This can lead to ‘tearing’ when capturing fast moving subjects and, arguably, isn’t actually as top quality as using a lower resolution progressive capture.
Panasonic GF2 – Movie/Video Focusing Modes
It’s possible to have single, continuous or manual focus control while shooting movies depending on your preference. A particular favourite is using the Peripheral Defocus Scene mode while shooting movies however, as a quick tap on the screen destines the focus point and can make for some smooth focal transitions. As focusing doesn’t try to be too swift it’s generally more accurate and pleasing for movie capture too. The main issue with focusing is the very same as with shooting stills – the sensor focuses across a fairly centrally-arranged area only.
Panasonic GF2 – Movie/Video Manual Control
There’s a small degree of manual control available. Aperture can be fixed in advance of recording, though final exposure cannot (even when in Manual mode). The camera will always adjust the exposure according to where it thinks it should be and, therefore, many of your settings will be over-ridden.
Within the menu options there are a variety of focus, metering and other smaller options such as microphone level adjustment to tweak various options.
Panasonic GF2 – Movie/Video Sound
Although a stereo microphone is present on the top of the camera body, the L and R channels are so closely paired together that the supposed stereo has limited differentiation between the two channels. The lack of a microphone jack (2.5 or 3.5mm) also limits the overall complexity of ways to record sound. Though that’s not to say there’s anything at all wrong with the final quality, despite it sounding a little more hard-centred than you may wish for.
Value & Verdict
Panasonic Lumix GF2 review – Value
New products tend to carry a premium, though both of the GF2’s kit formations come in at less than the GF1 originally retailed for. With the 14mm f/2.5 lens expect to pay around £630, and with the 14-42mm the price ought to be a penny less than £600.
Consider that the Sony NEX-5 with 18-55mm lens is around £500 or, at the most affordable end of the scale, the Samsung NX100 with 20-50mm lens is available for £380.
Of course the GF2 offers its very small size and touschscreen ability which will add value to those seeking such features. However, one of the disappointing elements is the lack of any body only purchase option – especially as the 14mm lens isn’t going to be the ‘right fit’ for everybody.
Panasonic Lumix GF2 review – Verdict
The Panasonic Lumix GF2 seems to have a lot of future-thinking in place. There’s touchscreen, 3D compatibility and Micro Four Thirds boasts the largest selection of lenses compared to any other Compact System Camera manufacturer. The new slimmed-down body size is great, though not without its issues: why the physical mode dial has been removed is beyond us (please bring it back) and the 14mm prime lens really isn’t going to be for everyone (a body only option would have been great). The touchscreen may be a step too far for some, but it does add some great practical touches in use such as movie focusing. Still a great little camera, but one that seems to step sidewards from where the Panasonic Lumix GF1 was some 15 months ago, when we were hoping for more of a giant leap.