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Mini-Review | Panasonic Lumix GF1

Today we are featuring the fourth [tag]micro 4/3[/tag] camera in the market after the [tag]Panasonic Lumix[/tag] G1, GH1, and the[tag] Olympus E-P1 Digital PEN,[/tag] the [tag]Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1[/tag]. I had the opportunity to attend a pre-media introduction of the GF1 courtesy of Panasonic Singapore. This hands-on preview is not meant to be a full-fledge [tag]review[/tag] but a mere walk-through of the camera, sample photographs, and my personal opinion based on the units that were available for me to test.

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Note: The units are not production units and are pre-production samples, final product may have slight firmware and software differences than the unit(s) reviewed. Illustration images are shot with a Canon DSLR and a Panasonic TZ-3, specific images shot with the Lumix DMC-GF1  will be showed in the caption, if no caption is specified, it was NOT shot with the GF1. All images are either cropped and/or resized, no further image corrections were applied. RAW was not tested. First, the official specs according to Panasonic:

Sensor • 4/3 type MOS (‘Live MOS sensor’) • 13.06 million total pixels • 12.11 million effective pixels • RGB (Primary) color filter array

LCD monitor • 3.0″ Low temperature Polycrystalline TFT LCD • 3:2 aspect ratio • Wide viewing angle • 460,000 dots • 60 fps • Approx 100% frame coverage • Brightness (7 levels), Color (7 levels) • Modes: Off / Auto Power LCD / Power LCD

Focus modes • Auto Focus • Manual focus • Face Detection • AF Tracking • 23-Area-Focusing/1 Area Focusing • Single or Continuous AF • AF detection range: EV 0-18 (F3.5 lens, ISO 100) • Pre AF (Quick AF/Continuous AF), AF+MF, MF Assist(5x, 10x)

Flash • Manual pop-up • TTL auto / manual • Guide no. 6.0 (ISO 100, m) • Sync modes: Auto, On, Off, Red-eye reduction, Slow syncro with red-eye reduction, Slow syncro • 1st /2nd curtain sync • Flash power: Up to +/- 2EV in 1/3 EV steps • Flash X-sync speed 1/160 sec

Kit lens options • Lumix 20mm F1.7 G ASPH (pancake) • Lumix G Vario 14-45mm F3.5-5.6 ASPH Sensitivity    ISO 100-3200 Dimensions    119 mm x 71 mm x 36.3 mm Weight (body only)    Approx. 285 g (10.05 oz)

The key competitor for the GF1 would be the popular Olympus E-P1. The E-P1 is extremely popular and has been selling like hotcakes world-wide. The retro design of the Olympus made many buyers put the new sensor/mount format question aside and embraced the form factor of the camera and lens while accepting the benefit of having a small camera with large sensor benefits.

The [tag]Olympus[/tag] is not perfect, however, with some glaring issues with auto-focus that made many users, like myself, feel it’s an “unfinished” product, no matter how revolutionary it may have been. Panasonic attempts to bridge the technological superiority of their expensive Lumix GH1, form factor of the E-P1, and providing features that were left out from the Olympus.

The Panasonic GF1 will be sold in two kit packages in Singapore, Kit One being the body plus the Lumix G Vario 14-45mm F3.5-5.6 ASPH, while Kit Two will include the Lumix 20mm F1.7 G ASPH “pancake” prime lens. No local prices were available as of this writing.

Additional auto-focus lenses from Panasonic include the Panasonic Leica D Summilux 25mm F1.4 ASPH,  Panasonic Leica D Vario-Elmar 14-50mm F3.8-5.6 ASPH. Mega OIS, Panasonic Leica D Vario-Elmar 14-150mm F3.5-5.6 ASPH. Mega OIS, and the Leica DG Macro Elmarit 45mm f/2.8 Macro.

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Leica DG Macro Elmarit 45mm f/2.8 Macro

The Olympus micro 4/3 lenses available for the Olympus E-P1 will work on the GF1 as well. Standard Olympus 4/3 lenses can also be used with an optional adapter (sold separately).

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Form Factor

Externally, the Panasonic GF1 looks like an enlarged Panasonic LX3 and does not follow the DSLR-like form factor of the G1/GH1 series. According to Panasonic, the GH series would be Panasonic’s line of digital cameras that offer superior video features while the GF1 spearheads the high-end, still-photography line.

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Some noticeable features you will find on the GF1 include an AF-assist light under the “Lumix” logo on the front of the camera, a flush-mounted pop-up flash, a hotshoe, and the notch protruding as a hand/finger grip. Compared to the Olympus, the GF1 looks more like a contemporary digital camera such as the Canon G-series. The camera body is available in silver, maroon, black, and white. The rear of the camera is dominated by the LCD screen and surrounded by control buttons all around. The buttons give a firm feedback while still staying pretty flush against the surface of the rear plate. The main camera setting adjustment is controlled by a thumb wheel while menu and parameter items are controlled by the four-way button with a center button.

The LCD is considerably brighter, sharper, and provides more detail than the Olympus E-P1′s dated 230,000-pixel screen. When manual focusing, the screen automatically zooms in to aid focusing and is a lot more useful than the E-P1. However, it was mentioned that when third-party, manual focus lenses are used, auto-magnification will not work and you have to zoom manually via the controller. On top of the screen  sports a port that allows an external electronic viewfinder (EVF) to be mounted. The EVF is useful in cases where the main LCD is exposed to high-glare situations such as bright sunlight, direct light, or simply if the user prefers to hold the camera at eye-level like a proper camera instead of holding the camera at arm’s length when composing. Adding the EVF makes it a lot more intuitive to use if you are used to using a DSLR. The EVF houses a 0.2″ full-color LCD screen with 201,600 pixels. The resolution may seem low, but if you consider the fact that all those pixels are displayed on such a small screen, it is adequate for general shooting and the image on the screen doesn’t suffer from any noticeable lag. The colors displayed on the EVF is slightly different from the image showed on the main LCD, however.

Panasonic provides ample diopter adjustment for spectacle users and the EVF can also be swiveled vertically, allowing the photographer to frame the shot like a waist-level finder and proves to be incredibly useful for low-angle shots. The EVF seems well-built, however, the thin hinge may be too fragile for rough-handlers, thankfully, a nifty hard-leather pouch is included for the EVF. Another noticeable feature on the GF1 that is absent from the Olympus would be the pop-up flash. Rated only with a guide number of 6, the flash is not powerful, however, it is creatively deployed. The flash unhinges and extends vertically instead of a simple hinge (possibly to maintain the low-height of the camera) and seems to be well built. There is no wobble on the flash itself neither does the hinge mechanism, the flash locks in place with a very reassuring click as well.

The weak flash is not really an issue, I think, as any frontal, on-axis flash rarely results to appealing results anyway and having a small flash for fill-flash purposes is just about right for a camera like the GF1. In fact, the weaker flash makes it pleasing for common indoor gatherings preventing overblown exposures in close range.

Image taken with GF1, pop-up flash, subject 3ft from camera.

Flash exposure is very pleasing and in aperture-priority mode, automatically functions as a fill-flash producing a good balance between ambient and flash exposure. Lastly, the base houses the usual battery and SD card compartment with the tripod socket is aligned to the center of the lens mount (unlike the Olympus). The battery compartment is very well made unlike the TZ series of Panasonic pocket cameras, the door snaps shut with much security.

Lenses

We were allowed to use the two standard lenses available for the GF1, the 14-45mm zoom lens and the 20mm prime lens. I prefer the prime lens as it just looks great on the camera. With the pancake mounted, the camera looks minimalistic while still look serious enough to be a journalist’s tool.

Taken with GF1 and 20mm Pancake Lens @ f/1.7

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Taken with GF1 and 20mm Pancake Lens @ f/1.7

The Lumix 20mm F1.7 G ASPH pancake lens produces a soft, thin depth-of-field and pleasing bokeh with its seven circulated aperture blade construction. The lens is sharp and focuses really quickly, I think all buyers should consider the GF1 with this lens over the kit lens package. The kit zoom lens makes the GF1 appear to be an oversize Lumix LX3, as mentioned earlier.  The Lumix G Vario 14-45mm F3.5-5.6 ASPH will provide an equivalent field-of-view of a 28-90mm lens due to the 2x crop factor. While the focal range is very useful, the lens is mediocre in terms of design. There is considerable distortion and vignettes heavily, but the focus is lighting fast, very silent, and very accurate. The Mega O.I.S also works well for this lens. Panasonic only had a non-functional prototype of the Leica DG Macro Elmarit 45mm f/2.8 Macro, so I was not able to test that option.

Video

Like my Olympus E-P1 review, I really do not know how to shoot video well, so all I can say is that the AF works wonderfully (and silently, even with the kit lens) and is a big relief over manual focus-only or pre-focus-only options from most other cameras.

Image Quality

It’s hard to gauge image quality with a pre-production unit and without objective testing guidelines, so let’s take a look at ISO noise control first. Note that the images below are CROPPED images but are not modified with any noise-reduction or exposure adjustment. The samples range from ISO 100 to ISO 3200, please click the thumbnail for the large crop.

ISO 100

ISO 200

ISO 400

ISO 800

ISO 1600

ISO 3200

The ISO performance is pretty similar to the Olympus E-P1, so it’s splendid and matches most DSLR’s performance. ISO 3200 is still very usable and I can predict a clean 8R print. I’ll end this section with some more sample images. The pre-production unit tends to under-expose about half-a-stop and renders orange rather brownish while other colors appear bright and vivid.

Taken with GF1 and 20mm f/1.7

Taken with GF1 and 20mm f/1.7

Taken with GF1 and 20mm f/1.7

Taken with GF1 and 20mm f/1.7

Taken with GF1 and 20mm f/1.7 @ 16:9

I’ve been going back and forth about the Panasonic Lumix GF1 and the Olympus E-P1, there is a clear reason for that if you’re not acquainted with the recent micro 4/3 camera releases. The two cameras have more in common than differences and I’m pretty certain that potential buyers of both cameras will make the purchase decision based on appearance and ergonomics more than technical differences. Thanks to one of the attendees for bringing an Olympus E-P1, I was able to snap some shots with the GF1 right next to it.

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The Panasonic GH1 has several objective technological advantages over the E-P1, partly because the Olympus took advantage of the slow release of Panasonic and released the E-P1 early. However, the shortcomings of the E-P1 allowed Panasonic to correct Olympus’ oversight with the Lumix GF1. However, the E-P1 captured quite a chunk of the micro 4/3′s first batch of followers with a camera that not only works great, but looks stunning as well. The E-P1 appeals tremendously to film camera users who grew up with 70′s metal cameras and those who want a large sensor’s image quality in a smaller-than-entry-level DSLR market.

Many of my readers know that I’m very impartial to brands, and just because I like the Olympus tremendously doesn’t mean I can turn a blind eye to my previous AF issues with it. The E-P1 seems to work much faster with Panasonic lenses, maybe that’s the magic bullet, along with a possible firmware update. If that’s the case, then the GF1 will have a tough hill to climb competing against the only competitor it has right now.

There are rumors of the Samsung mirror-less Nx series will be coming out by the end of the year, and industry giants such as Sony and Nikon are having possible mirror-less releases in the near future as well. If this pushes through and the mentioned companies can utilize existing DSLR lenses, it will be a very fierce battle that will be tough for a small player to compete against companies with better camera experiences and deeper budget.

The insane cost of accessories for all Panasonic camera models is a major turn off, with a standard-capacity battery costing twice as much as Canon/Nikon DSLR high-capacity batteries will be tough to swallow especially if you’re buying the GF1 for travel and you need multiple batteries. The LUMIX G VARIO HD 14-140mm/F4.0-5.8 ASPH is a wonderful and unique lens offering superb optical qualities, focal range, and focus speed, but it’s a tough sell at the same price as pro-grade lenses from Canon and Nikon.

Olympus E-P1 or Panasonic GF1? Tough call, you can’t go wrong with either. As a camera, I’d pick the GF1 in a heartbeat, it has better AF, better UI, better features, and better lenses. However, that Olympus retro styling is extremely hard to ignore, and with the two cameras being so similar internally, it’ll all boil down to cost and availability of accessories, which I think Olympus has an upper hand.

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Hopefully, I can get a chance to do a comprehensive review with both lenses in the near future, but if you can’t wait, I don’t think anyone will be disappointed with what the Panasonic GF1 offers. It’s a solid camera inside-out.