Panasonic GF6 Hands-On Preview
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We spent some quality time with the new Panasonic GF6 Micro Four Thirds camera at last week’s European Launch, held in sunny Vienna, Austria, to deliver you an extensive hands-on preview. Click through / read on to find out what the buzz is all about.
Successor to the tiny, 12-megapixel Lumix GF5, the 16-megapixel Panasonic GF6 is a marginally bigger and 56 grams heavier camera that offsets the size and weight increase with a number of new features and an upgraded, much more versatile user interface. While the design is still characterised by gentle curves and a polished exterior, the Panasonic GF6 gains a few important controls such as a physical mode dial – which we haven’t seen on a Lumix GF series camera since the discontinuation of the GF1 – , a high-resolution, hinged touchscreen, a G5-inspired function lever and a new customisable Function button. Like the company’s TZ40/ZS30 and FT5 compacts, the Panasonic GF6 adds support for Wi-Fi and NFC (near-field communication), which facilitate easy picture sharing as well as remote operation. Other novelties include a number of extra digital effects, improved low-light focusing, stop-motion video shooting, intelligent two-pass noise filtering courtesy of a GH3-derived Venus processing engine, the ability to apply Creative Control effects to automatically stitched panoramic images, and a clever Clear Retouch function that allows users to clone out unwanted elements from a photo in-camera.
Let us examine these novelties and enhancements in more detail.
Sensor and processor Leaving behind the somewhat aging 12-megapixel sensor used in previous generations of its Lumix GF series cameras, Panasonic has now taken the 16-megapixel Four Thirds “Live MOS” imager from the DMC-GX1 and planted it into the GF6. The 32% increase in pixel count translates into a roughly 15% improvement in linear resolution. For optimum performance, the designers have paired this sensor with the latest-generation Venus processing engine lifted from the flagship Lumix GH3. This chip enables the camera to perform intelligent two-stage noise filtering on JPEG images, smoothing out the noise in homogeneous areas while preserving details where it really matters. The Lumix GF6 cameras we were able to try out in Vienna were running firmware version 0.2 so we cannot comment on how successful this effort really is – but Panasonic has allowed us to publish sample images downsized to 5 megapixels, giving you an idea of what the images look like at regular print sizes and most screen resolutions bar 4K Ultra HD.
ISO range The sensor’s native sensitivity range extends from ISO 160/23° to ISO 12800/42°, with a boosted setting of ISO 25600/45° also available should you feel a need for using such a high ISO speed.
Auto focus Panasonic’s Micro Four Thirds cameras have always been famous for their remarkable auto focus speed and accuracy in good light – but some of them were prone to hunting in really dark conditions. The company says it has enhanced the AF system of the Panasonic GF6 to remain operational down to -3EV, an extremely low light level where most other cameras give up. The system does slow down when switched to this night-shot AF mode but that’s still a lot better than being completely unable to achieve a focus lock.
Burst shooting The Panasonic Lumix GF6 is capable of shooting full-resolution stills at up to 3.7 frames per second (fps) while maintaining auto focus, or 4.2fps with fixed focus.
Mode dial The Panasonic GF6 sees the return of the physical mode dial, which was present on the GF1 but was lost with the introduction of the GF2 in 2010. This is a welcome feature even if some may think it compromises the minimalist design that has become something of a hallmark of the GF series. The dial offers access to all the expected shooting modes such as P, A, S and M; plus there is a dedicated Movie setting, as well as Scene, Creative Panorama, Creative Control options and two custom settings banks; which is excellent news for power users (many more expensive cameras have more awkward ways of accessing memory banks, if they offer the feature in the first place). Those that like to use scene modes will be delighted to learn that the Panasonic Lumix GF6 has them in spades – there’s 23 of them in total, including a “meal mode” (Appetizing Food) which, we are being told, is expected to be very popular with customers in a number of Far Eastern markets.
Function lever First seen on the Lumix G5, this clever little control allows users to easily adjust the lens’s focal length when a power zoom is mounted to the camera. While this functionality is intended to appeal to compact camera users trading up, more experienced photographers will be delighted to learn that the function lever can be used to control exposure compensation whenever a non-motorised zoom or a prime lens is attached. The difference between the G5 and the GF6 is that on the latter, this function lever comes in the form of a rocker control encircling the shutter release.
Fn2 button Where the Panasonic GF3 and GF5 had only one physical Fn button – which provided quick access to the Quick Menu by default –, the GF6 has two. This is great news as the camera still lacks e.g. a dedicated ISO button, and this functionality can now be assigned to the Fn2 button without losing direct-button access to the Quick Menu, which is still mapped unto the first Fn button by default. Of course, ISO sensitivity is but one of many options that can be assigned to the function buttons. In Playback mode, the Fn2 button is used to access the camera’s Wi-Fi feature.
Articulated touchscreen Completely new to the Panasonic GF6 is the high-resolution (1,040,000-dot) articulated LCD screen, which flips upward 180° to face the subject, which comes in very handy when taking self-portraits. As a matter of fact, the GF6 automatically initiates its self-shot function if the screen is brought forward while the camera is in Record mode. The screen also tilts downward to facilitate waist-level shooting, but unlike the one on the DMC-G5 it won’t flip out sideways. The panel itself is touch-sensitive and electrostatic, with multi-touch and gesture support. Unlike previous designs, this screen does not require a separate touch-detecting layer to be applied to its surface – this has the benefit of reduced light scatter, translating into improved outdoors visibility. When trying out the camera in Vienna, we had absolutely no complaints about glare or reflections – but of course Vienna in April cannot be compared to, say, Arizona or Andalucía in the summer so it still remains to be seen if the screen stays easy to see in really strong sunlight. All the expected touch-based functions are there, including Touch AF, Touch AE and Touch Shutter, but if using a touchscreen isn’t your cup of tea, the good news is that you can completely forget about it as the camera can be operated perfectly by using the physical controls only.
Clear Retouch One of the benefits of modern capacitive touchscreens is gesture support, and Panasonic has found some rather creative uses for this technology. Perhaps the most interesting is what it calls Clear Retouch – a feature that allows users to select an unwanted element in the frame, such as a dustbin or a stranger, and have it deleted using a content-aware-fill-type algorithm. This is a powerful tool to have in-camera, possibly alleviating the need for users to invest in an expensive photo editing application.
Creative Control The Panasonic Lumix GF6 sees an increase in the number of Creative Control effects, to 19 including Expressive, Retro, Old Days, High Key, Low Key, Sepia, Dynamic Monochrome, Impressive Art, High Dynamic, Cross Process, Toy Effect, Toy Pop, Bleach Bypass, Miniature Effect, Soft Focus, Fantasy, One Point Colour, Sunshine and Star Filter (for a demonstration, see our Panasonic GF6 sample images). For the first time ever, the majority of these effects can now be applied to panoramic images stitched in-camera – this functionality is dubbed ‘Creative Panorama’ by Panasonic. Creative Control effects and Creative Panoramas have their dedicated positions on the mode dial, making them easily accessible.
Wi-Fi with NFC While all the above improvements make the Panasonic GF6 a more versatile camera than its immediate forebears, its real trump card is its Wi-Fi implementation, which includes NFC (near-field communication) support. NFC is a fairly new technology that allows users to easily establish a wireless connection between two compatible devices by simply touching them against each other. By communicating over NFC, the two devices can set up a Wi-Fi connection without a need for the user to bother with passwords. Once the Wi-Fi connection is established, the camera and the other device can transfer data faster and over a greater distance. In order for this to work, one needs an NFC-enabled smartphone or tablet computer capable of running the required Panasonic app. According to Panasonic UK, 10% of all smartphones sold in 2012 offered NFC support, and the number of such devices is expected to treble in 2013. If your phone does not feature this tech, do not despair – you can still establish a wireless connection the “traditional” way. And Wi-Fi isn’t just for image sharing – the Panasonic app also lets users control their camera remotely. This includes focusing, exposure, firing the shutter – and even zooming, if you have a power zoom attached. The Panasonic GF6 can also connect to a wireless router for uploading images to a PC or the cloud, while its Wi-Fi direct function allows it to be hooked up with a DLNA-enabled Viera HD TV for image playback on the big screen.
Video recording Like its predecessor, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF6 can record 1080i AVCHD videos with stereo sound, with 1080p recording supported in MP4 format. As before, it has a dedicated, red movie record button on the top panel for one-touch movie capture – and as noted, there is a fully-fledged movie mode available on the shooting mode dial, which allows full exposure control. The majority of the camera’s Creative Control effects can be applied to video clips as well as stills. In addition, the GF6 has the ability to shoot stop-motion animation movies.
Kit lens The DMC-GF6 features a Micro Four Thirds mount and comes bundled with the new Lumix G Vario 14-42mm II lens, which is considerably smaller than the first version, although obviously not quite as tiny as the collapsible 14-42mm X power zoom. This is the lens we used for our Panasonic GF6 sample photos. A double-lens kit including both the 14-42mm II and 45-150mm lenses will also be available. The single-lens kit shall cost £499, while the double-zoom bundle can be yours for £649.
Missing features The Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF6 may be significantly higher specified than the majority of GF series models that came before it, but it’s still an entry-level model after all. Panasonic has made sure to leave enough points of differentiation between it and the GX1, which remains in its line-up for the foreseeable future. Thus the Lumix GF6 still lacks a hot-shoe and an accessory terminal, offering no way to mount an external flashgun or optional eye-level viewfinder. And like the other Micro Four Thirds offerings, it makes do without PDAF support, unlike some of the CSC competition, which offer on-sensor PDAF for shooting subjects in motion. There’s no body-integral GPS module either – you can use the Wi-Fi function to geotag your images using your phone’s GPS feature but that’s not the same thing as having it built in. And given that Panasonic has a number of Mega O.I.S. lenses, the camera comes without sensor-shift image stabilisation, unlike its closest Micro Four Thirds competitor, the Olympus E-PL5 Pen Lite.
Initial impressions The Panasonic DMC-GF6 is a very well made little camera that feels better built than its price tag would suggest. With the 14-42mm II lens attached, the camera feels substantial without being heavy, which is a good thing. The control layout is logical - we especially liked the function lever, which provided for an easy way to set exposure compensation; and the second function button, which gave us direct access to ISO sensitivity settings. The high-resolution screen was very nice and sharp, and as mentioned above, it really was easy to see outdoors. The camera was responsive with a quick start-up and truly lightning-fast auto focus. Much to our surprise, we even found some of the Creative Control effects useful, if only for JPEG shooting. While we shall reserve final judgment until we can deliver you our fully-fledged in-depth Panasonic GF6 review based on a production model with final firmware; I’ll venture to say that unless you absolutely need a hot-shoe or accessory port, you may well find the GF6 a more tempting proposition than the higher-positioned GX1.