The GX1 carries over all the goodness from the G3 and squeezes it into a reimagined GF1-style body. Can the GX1 offer the ultimate Compact System Camera experience? The What Digital Camera Panasonic GX1 review takes a closer look...
Panasonic Lumix GX1 review – Features
The GX1’s innards are familiar fare. The same 16-megapixel Micro Four Thirds Live MOS sensor as found in the Lumix G3 is at the GX1’s core, while the 23-Area focus system, 144-zone metering system, 1080i HD movie mode and 3in, 460kdot touchscreen LCD also make the transition.
The GX1 keeps Panasonic’s super-fast ‘lightspeed’ autofocus system but tweaks it a stage further for a fastest-ever 0.09sec focus acquisition time (as quoted by Panasonic using the 14mm setting on the latest power zoom lens). That makes it the quickest G-series model to date. A 4.2 frames per second burst mode also sees the GX1 as speedier than the G3, though not quite as fast as the top-spec GH2‘s 5fps burst shooting abilities.
Although there’s no viewfinder the GX1 introduces a new accessory port that’s compatible with the 1.44m-dot DMW-LVF2 electronic viewfinder (EVF). Good news for those new to the fold if the £200 supplementary price tag isn’t an off-put, though it’s worth taking note that the older LVF1 EVF isn’t compatible with the GX1, nor is the LVF2 backwards compatible with older G-series models.
With the screen the main focus for composition the GX1 introduces a new level gauge for horizontal and vertical alignment assessment to complement the other array of display grid options.
But it’s the camera’s exterior and build that makes it what it is. Hark back to the first GF-series camera, the GF1, and the GX1 has a lot of similarities, albeit wrapped up in a higher-spec build. The metal buttons, aluminium body and shaped leather handgrip give the GX1 a premium edge like no other G-series camera.
Add to this a new 14-42mm power zoom lens and the overall system size is kept all the smaller. The lens only extends outwards when the camera is powered up and rather than use a traditional rotational barrel there are two toggles on the lens barrel to control focus and zoom. According to Panasonic’s measurements this new, smaller lens is of no detriment to image quality.
Panasonic Lumix GX1 review – Design
The recent Lumix GF3 stripped back physical controls to a bare minimum and its exclusion of a hotshoe meant a simplified, miniaturised and therefore, in some respects, a limited camera. The GX1, on the other hand, is quite the opposite: it’s still small, but the onus is on providing all the hands-on controls that demanding photographers require.
There’s a main mode dial on the camera’s top, next to which are two buttons – one for movie and the other glows blue when pressed to show iA (intelligent Auto) is activated. On the camera’s rear there’s a thumbwheel, four-way d-pad, two programmable function (Fn1/2) buttons, plus separate Q.Menu (Quick Menu), Display, AF/MF and AF/AE lock buttons. The ability to customise means the camera can be set up how you choose – not only to dictate the function buttons’ settings, but also to drag-and-drop settings into the Q.Menu using the touchscreen. This means settings can be re-ordered, added or excluded from the on-screen menu to make sure it’s set up exactly as wanted. Our one and only moan is that the Drive mode switch (that appeared on the GF1 around the main mode dial) is nowhere to be found – instead it’s demoted to a down-press of the d-pad.
In use everything feels right; the GX1’s layout is intuitive and leaves little to be desired when it comes to controls. The premium build also makes the camera feel that extra bit special. No other G-series camera has been made to this standard, and it really shows.
The new lens, however, isn’t going to be to everyone’s tastes. Although a good looker that’s well built and aesthetically matches to the GX1’s body, it’s the fact it’s a powered zoom that will grate with some. Rather than a traditional twist-barrel to zoom and/or focus the power zoom version has two toggles on the barrel instead. Their placement takes a little getting used to and the speed of the zoom doesn’t feel rapid enough. There are some benefits, such as holding the camera steady during movie recording and the obvious smaller size, but the additional cost (the power zoom adds a premium of around £150 more than the conventional 14-42mm zoom) is a tall order. Other power zoom lenses are due in the near future and may have more appeal but, for now, we’re not totally sold on the idea.
Panasonic Lumix GX1 review – Performance
A fast startup time is met with Panasonic’s super-fast ‘light speed’ autofocus system. When the neighbouring Lumix G3 was released Panasonic laid claim to the world’s fastest AF system – one that’s a fraction quicker in the GX1. In reality, however, the speed feels about the same, as the hundredths of a second difference (0.1sec improved to 0.09sec) isn’t measurable at a human level. But for Panasonic to still be squeezing every last drop out of its system is more than commendable.
Although the focus is near instant to acquire subject focus, fast moving subjects and low-light scenarios will throw a bit of a spanner in the works. As per any contrast-detection system subjects with limited contrast can also cause problems.
However the GX1 is the first G-series camera to introduce AF-F (Autofocus Flexible) to deal with less predictable subject movement. This mode is best described as halfway between the AF-S (single autofocus) and AF-C (continuous autofocus) that the camera also offers, whereby AF-F will only use continuous if the shutter is half pressed and the camera detects subject movement.
Focusing modes are divided into the same Face Detection, AF Tracking, 23-Area, 1-Area and Pinpoint options as per the G3. The latter mode is particularly useful for precise focus where, for example, you may wish to either pick a specific subject out of a complex scene or ensure the utmost accuracy in a close-up shot. Pinpoint differs from 1-Area by not only offering a smaller cross-type focus area but by also zooming in the subject on screen to represent the final image at full size, thus ensuring accurate focus is acquired. Both 1-Area and Pinpoint options also operate right across the full breadth of the screen which, unlike the majority of CSC competitors, provides a far broader scope of focusing. It’s the small touches like this that make the GX1 stand out.
The GX1’s touchscreen is also ideal for quick and easy ‘one-press autofocus’ by pressing a finger onto the screen itself. Other competitors have started to offer touchscreens but, at least for now, the Panasonic system is far more integrated into the camera’s use. As a method to quick-adjust the focus area and then continue to shoot as normal or to chose subject focus in movie mode it’s a great option to have.
A high speed burst mode of 4.2fps can capture up to nine frames before a pause when shooting Raw & JPEG files. Although it will take 30seconds to clear these files to the card it’s still possible to adjust any settings and even continue to shoot (depending on how many frames have been captured in a single burst). A ‘super high speed’ 20fps burst rate is also available – though this uses an electronic shutter and can only capture 4MP-sized images that are more compressed. 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.
The GX1’s battery sees an improvement compared to the GF3 and G3 models, quoted as shooting 310 shots per charge. Although that’s not an astounding figure, it’s on par with the longevity of the competition.
Panasonic Lumix GX1 review – Image Quality
Panasonic GX1: ISO Sensitivity & Image Noise
The GX1 uses the same 16-megapixel sensor as found in the G3 and, as a result, images results are much the same between the two cameras (where ISO settings match).
From ISO 160-200 results are decent and although there is some grain-like structure to be seen throughout images it’s not to the detriment of quality. However, there’s still no ISO 100 setting or lower.
Enough detail is resolved from ISO 160-400, which then dips at ISO 800 where the JPEG processing begins to sharpen results more heavily. In studio testing ISO 1600 began to soften and break down detail, and this rises exponentially from ISO 3200 to ISO 12,800. These latter settings also show far more signs of luminance noise breaking down image detail, plus colour noise seeps in which can render deeper tones and blacks a reddish colour.
However, in the real world the majority of the ISO range, save for the ISO 3200-12,800 settings, are more than usable (even the upper echelons of the ISO range have their uses, but at the expense of loss of colour, sharpness issues and colour/luminance noise presence). The GX1 may not quite fight off a high-spec DSLR, but it produces better results than the Nikon 1 series and the balance of sensor size to physical product feels about right.
Panasonic GX1: Tone & Exposure
The GX1 offers three standard methods of exposure metering – evaluative, centre-weighted and spot.
We found evaluative exposure to err towards underexposure, leading to bracketing shooting for best results. Tones are also towards the darker side of the palette, as contrast is high at standard settings. By default the ‘i.Dynamic’ mode gives a push to shadow areas for a more ‘equal’ exposure, it offers three levels of strength or can be switched off.
Panasonic GX1: Colour & White Balance
The GX1’s shots have rich and standout colours that look realistic. Other Photo Style options (Standard, Vivid, Natural, Mono, Scenery, Portrait and Custom) will shift the colour and contrast to varying degrees.
There’s also a ‘Creative Control’ option on the main mode dial that provides access to Expressive, Retro, High Key, Sepia, High Dynamic Range and new Toy and Miniature shooting options. It’s even possible to shoot an original Raw shot when one of these modes is selected, so you’ll never have to sacrifice final quality if the given effect isn’t quite what you want. The division between these two categories, however, seems unnecessary: if the Photo Style options were bundled in with the Creative Control options (or vice versa) then everything could be accessed from one space.
The GX1’s Auto White Balance delivers the goods throughout a variety of scenarios and includes a selection of presets that includes natural, fluorescent and flash lighting.
Panasonic GX1: Sharpness & Detail
The inclusion of a new power zoom 14-42mm lens won’t make a great deal of difference to image quality compared to the standard 14-42mm lens. Both options lack that pin-sharpness but there are plenty of other lenses out there to choose from – a current tally of 25 Micro Four Thirds lenses exceeds all other Compact System Camera ranges on the market.
Panasonic Lumix GX1 review – Movie/Video Mode
The Lumix GX1 offers a 1080i movie mode that captures at 50 fields per second (output at 25 frames per second for the PAL release or 1080i60 output at 30fps in the US’s NTSC model). Like the G3 the GX1’s choice to use interlaced capture (even lines are captured on one sensor pass, odd lines on the next pass) means the camera isn’t the best for fast movement or panning during recording. This is because ‘tearing’ can occur that shows subjects in a ‘two’ locations – one that’s a few pixels apart from the other for every other line of pixels. It’s a shame Panasonic hasn’t gone the whole hog and put in class-leading movie capabilities, particularly given the Sony NEX-series’ inclusion of 1080p 28Mbps capture, though the GX1’s movies are still good enough.
Movie focusing is dealt with smoothly, comprising of single (AF-S), full time (AF-C) or manual focusing options. The full-time focus is slower and smoother than stills shooting and this means it glides into place with ease when movie shooting.
The lack of a microphone port on this model is something of a surprise as the inclusion of a hotshoe and other high-end features would suggest additional audio capabilities would be on the cards. Sadly this is not the case. But what does make the GX1’s movie mode that bit special is the camera’s touchscreen. Being able to use a literal hands-on approach makes focusing between subjects far simpler than pressing buttons. The inclusion of the power-zoom 14-42mm lens (if purchasing that kit) also means you needn’t twist the lens barrel when zooming and this pays dividends for steadiness when shooting handheld.
Value & Verdict
Panasonic Lumix GX1 review – Value
The GX1’s premium finish carries an equally premium price tag. At £749 with the 14-42mm power zoom lens it’s one of the pricier models in the G-series range, and even exceeds both the Samsung NX200‘s and Olympus E-P3‘s considerable £699 price tags.
Considering that the Lumix G3 – which produces the same image quality as the GX1 and even has a built-in viewfinder – was £630 at launch and can now be bagged for around £480 the GX1 seems all the more expensive. Should the new DMV-LVF2 electronic viewfinder (EVF) be added to your shopping basket the whole GX1 kit’ll be closer to £1000. Yowch.
It’s worth paying for premium build quality, but the power zoom lens may not be to all tastes, though the £599 standard 14-42mm kit option provides a more balanced price tag.
Panasonic Lumix GX1 review – Verdict
The GX1 is an accomplished camera that’ll be well suited to more demanding photographers. Compared to its Compact System Camera competitors Panasonic’s latest has a fine balance of physical system size to image quality ratio. The huge array Micro Four Thirds lenses available also makes the G-series all the more attractive.
The super-fast autofocus is accomplished and the touchscreen makes for intuitive stills or movie capture, while small touches such as edge-to-edge and Pinpoint focusing make the camera all the more standout.
Where build quality is concerned there’s little to be desired: the GX1’s craft and finish is delightful, though it has to be to justify the rather large asking price.
Battery life may be improved compared to its G-series cousins, but there’s still room for yet more improvement on the power front. The camera’s movie mode is also outclassed by Sony’s NEX series. But these two small blips do little to mask what’s otherwise an accomplished camera. It may seem a lot like the GF1 reimagined, but credit where credit’s due: the GX1’s a cracking Compact System Camera.