The Lumix GF3 is the world's smallest and lightest interchangeable lens camera. What Digital Camera's Panasonic Lumix GF3 review checks if the downsizing makes for the best GF-series model yet...
Panasonic Lumix GF3 – Features
The Panasonic Lumix GF3 continues the company’s line of small and portable G-series models. By picking some of the top features and performance as found in the Lumix G3 model the GF3 ups the Compact System Camera ante by offering a super-fast autofocus system and ultra-small and light body.
As the Compact System Camera market continues to grow, the focal point for many manufacturers is sizing down the latest camera bodies to encompass top quality (from the large sensor sizes) in a compact-sized body. The Lumix GF3 is the embodiment of this idea, and is the current smallest and lightest interchangeable lens camera available in the world. But with cuts in size compared to the previous GF2 model has anything else been sacrificed in this latest release?
The GF3 houses a 12.1-megapixel Micro Four Thirds sensor at its heart, and while resolution hasn’t increased from the previous GF2 model there has been some work behind the scenes for improved processing and, therefore, what should be better image quality across its ISO 160-6400 range.
The camera’s 3.8fps burst rate allows for shots to be quickly reeled off and the inclusion of a 1080i Full HD movie mode which captures at 50 fields per second (outputs at 25fps or 60i/30fps in the NTSC version) shows the camera’s strength in not only stills but motion capture too.
On the GF3’s rear is a 3in, 460k-dot LCD screen with a touch-sensitive panel for true hands-on touch control. The resolution isn’t staggering, but is of good enough quality and well suited to its target market. There’s no viewfinder for this particular G-series model and no hotshoe fitting either means there’s no possibility of adding one at a later date.
The GF3’s manual controls mean it’s suitable for those looking for full control, yet the inclusion of auto modes, including iA (intelligent Auto) and iA+ makes it equally as perfect for point-and-shoot photographers looking for that extra level of quality.
Panasonic Lumix GF3 review – Design
The GF3’s goal to knock away every millimeter of excess does a grand job in making it a positively tiny camera. Although there’s more physical depth than your average Smartphone, the GF3 is less wide than an iPhone 4 and of a very similar height. Easy to carry anywhere, it’s only the (well proportioned) lenses that add much extra bulk, and when the 14mm pancake’s on the front that’s hardly much extra size or weight at all.
However, all this trimming does come at some expense. The first GF-series release, the GF1, was far more enthusiast-targeted, including mode dials and quick-access buttons. That was something the next incarnation, the GF2, more or less did away with by embedding modes into virtual menus instead. While we were less keen on this the GF3 follows a similar road, but goes the extra mile by stripping away the hotshoe and downsizing the flash (in both size and power). But the GF3’s a far more consumer-targeted camera rather than one for your hardcore pro – though it’d also make an excellent second camera to take anywhere and one that’s far better equipped than even the highest spec of compact camera.
It’s with the size that the Micro Four Thirds sensor size makes good sense – the lenses are proportionally smaller than those for the larger-sensored Sony NEX and Samsung NX cameras. This can be of particular use when using long lenses such as the 14-140mm or 100-300mm that are, considering their huge reach, of compact proportions.
The GF3’s touchscreen has seen improvements and is responsive for the most part, though could do with that extra lick of sensitivity to see it as a truly immersive hands-on experience. Those not keen on the touch-sensitive controls can access all major controls using the rear d-pad-cum-rotational-wheel instead.
The UK version of the Lumix GF3 will be available in black, white and red finishes.
Panasonic Lumix GF3 review – Performance
Put the GF3 to work and the most striking thing is just how fast its autofocus system is. On par with its brother and sister Lumix G3 and GH2 models, subjects speed into focus and the touchscreen control means the focus point can be set (quite literally) by hand.
Autofocus modes are available aplenty, including Face Detection, Subject Tracking, 23-Area, 1-Area and Pinpoint modes. It’s possible to focus anywhere across the entirety of the screen, and adjust the size of the focus/metering area from a small square through to a considerable size that’s around a quarter of the overall area. Pinpoint is the most unique focus mode – using a small cross the camera will zoom into actual image size, attain focus to provide visual confirmation, then snap the final shot. It’s useful for confirming very specific focus. Elsewhere the Subject Tracking AF is successful at locking on to moving subjects and, again, the touchscreen control makes it easy to press a finger to the subject wherever they are in the frame.
The GF3’s rear screen consists of a 460k-dot resolution, which is good enough for detailed playback but does find itself behind some competitors’ higher resolution offerings. The touch-sensitivity is successful for the most part, though can occasionally need an extra press if subtler touches fail to register.
As well as full manual control the latest intelligent Auto+ (iA+) adds easy on-screen sliders to select between Defocus Control, Brightness (exposure compensation) and Red/Blue colour cast (only these two colours, however). As per the original iA mode, iA+ also recognises the scene at hand and adjusts all settings accordingly for an optimum exposure.
Burst shooting is fairly prompt, at 3.8fps. However, with a Class 10 SD card and shooting in RAW + JPEG the GF3’s buffer fills up after just four consecutive shots.
As the GF3 is a small camera it also comes with a rather small battery. At 300 shots per charge there’s a limited amount of juice to keep you going, and although this may be enough for more casual users it’s a disappointing figure overall.
Panasonic Lumix GF3 review – Image Quality
Panasonic GF3: Tone & Exposure
There are the three standard exposure metering settings – evaluative, centre-weighted and spot. The GF3’s exposures are well-balanced and avoid excess over- or under-exposure in most situations. Tones can be towards the darker side of the palette, though by default the ‘i.Dynamic’ mode gives a push to shadow areas for more equal exposure. This can be turned off or has three levels of strength to choose between.
Panasonic GF3: Colour & White Balance
Colour is generally neutral when using Auto White Balance, though some artificial lighting conditions cause a yellowish cast.
Panasonic’s former ‘My Color’ modes take on the new ‘Creative Control’ guise, an area to enhance colouration and effects using presets such as ‘Expressive’, ‘Retro’, and ‘High Key’ among others.
Panasonic GF3: ISO Sensitivity & Image Noise
Unlike the G-series models further up the range the GF3 retains a conservative 12.1MP sensor. In our books this can only be a good thing, as excess pixels in such a small sensor area would otherwise hinder final image quality.
The ISO 160-6400 range is broad and images are of good quality up to ISO 400, while ISO 800 shows a stronger presence of grain running throughout the images.
However, even from the lowest settings (in lab tests) there’s the subtlest hint of colour noise that can be spotted in blacks and darker tones. This isn’t problematic in real world images, though the higher ISO settings from ISO 1600 and above do suffer a number of quality issues including softness and colour noise presence. The two higest sensitivities, ISO 3200 and ISO 6400, are certainly an improvement over the previous GF2’s performance, yet are still very soft and without the level of detail required.
Panasonic GF3: Sharpness & Detail
Using both the 14mm pancake and 14-42mm lenses results were good, albeit without the ultra-fine sharpness and detail for more delicate subjects and lines. Slight softness can be apparent due to processing, where using lower ISO settings and shooting in Raw can help achieve the most from a file.
Panasonic Lumix GF3 review – Movie/Video Mode
Panasonic GF3 review – Movie/Video Quality
Movie mode is quickly accessed using the one-touch button on top of the camera. The standard 4:3 ratio of stills will mean the frame re-crops to 16:9, though if your still shots are set up to the widescreen ratio then framing works exactly to the screen’s composition (there’s no cropping when hitting the record button).
The 1080i files utilise a 17Mbps data rate which crams in considerable data and results in decent capture. The interlaced ‘fields per second’ (i.e. half lines on one pass, the other half on the second pass) can create some tearing and blur when panning at speed, but is otherwise of a decent quality.
The AVCHD capture requires decoding to utilise clips outside of the camera, but this is easily possible using free programs such as iMovie or Windows Movie maker (pre-installed on current Mac and Windows systems).
Panasonic GF3 review – Movie/Video Focusing Modes
It’s possible to use single or continuous focus in conjunction with the touchscreen controls or manual focus by using the lens itself while shooting movies. Tapping onto the screen will position the focus point (whether by adding ‘weight’ to multiple areas, moving a single point to a specific location or beginning subject tracking at that location) and the focus is very smooth indeed. There are few cases of mis-focusing, which is great for high-quality playback.
It’s the touchscreen that really makes the GF3’s movie mode, and there’s very little else out there that can offer such smooth continuous autofocus.
Panasonic GF3 review – Movie/Video Manual Control
The GF3 doesn’t offer full manual control, though exposure compensation is available – however the latter can only be applied prior to capture and not adjusted during recording.
The movie menu also offers the Photo Style settings for Natural, Monochrome, Vivid and other presets.
Panasonic GF3 review – Movie/Video Sound
The GF3 records mono sound using its built in microphone, and there are no ports to connect a third party microphone. This isn’t a problem for the most part though windy conditions can cause some distortion.
Value & Verdict
Panasonic Lumix GF3 review – Value
With the release of the GF3 Panasonic has focused on squeezing the price down to an all time low. In fact when fresh on the shelves the GF3 will cost less than the GF2 does some six months into its sales. The GF3’s price points vary from £548 on Panasonic’s official website down to £420 with the 14-42mm lens at other online stores. That puts the camera well into range with the likes of Samsung’s NX-series, and cheaper than Sony’s forthcoming NEX-C3 and any of Olympus’s current PEN models. Unashamedly consumer and shrewdly positioned in the market, the GF3 represents fierce pricing.
Panasonic Lumix GF3 review – Verdict
The Panasonic Lumix GF3 delivers true quality in an ultra-small package. Taking a different and more consumer-led path from the original and subsequent GF-series releases, the GF3’s lack of a hotshoe mount and mode dials, exclusion of provisions for a viewfinder to be attached and the low power built-in flash may be a letdown to more demanding users. Yet for those seeking a small and pocketable camera that’s affordable, well equipped, super fast to autofocus, has intuitive touch control and a great movie mode need look no further. It’s an impressive camera that ought to not only push forward the Micro Four Thirds standard, but will most likely even take a bite out of the high-end compact market due to its comparable sizing.