Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1 Review

4.5
October 8, 2009 | Mark Goldstein |

Introduction

The new Lumix DMC-GF1 camera seamlessly combines the image quality and features of a DSLR with the handling and ease-of-use of a compact - at least that's what Panasonic is trying to achieve. With a 12 megapixel sensor, 3 inch LCD, high-definition video and wealth of shooting modes for beginners and more advanced users, can the diminutive Panasonic GF1 live up to all the pre-release hype? Mark Goldstein discovers if this is THE camera of 2009...

The new Panasonic DMC-GF1 is the latest Micro Four Thirds camera, following in the footsteps of the electronic giant’s G1 and GH1 models. Unlike those two cameras, which have a distinct DSLR look and feel, the Panasonic GF1 is smaller and lighter, thanks largely to the absence of a built-in viewfinder and hand-grip. Weighing a mere 285g and 35% smaller than the G1, this is currently the world’s smallest and lightest interchangeable lens camera with a built-in flash, which is also one of the key differences to the GF1’s most obvious rival, the Olympus Pen E-P1. The diminutive Panasonic GF1 also offers a 12.1-megapixel Live MOS sensor, high-resolution 3-inch LCD screen, Venus Engine HD image processor and in-built Dust Reduction system. If you don’t want to use the LCD screen for composition, an optional electronic external viewfinder is also available (£165 / $200), which slots into the external flash hotshoe on top of the camera. The GF1 can record 1280 x 720 high-definition video in the AVCHD Lite or Motion JPEG formats, and it can focus in just 0.3 seconds via its contrast auto-focusing system. The Panasonic GF1 is available in four colours, black, red, silver and white, either body only (£570) or in two different kits, one with the new LUMIX G 20mm/F1.7 ASPH pancake lens (£800 / $900), and the other with the existing 14-45mm/F3.5-5.6 ASPH/MEGA O.I.S. zoom lens (£720 / $900).

Ease of Use

The GF1 is undoubtedly smaller than its big brothers, the G1 and GH1, but it's not quite as tiny as Panasonic might lead you to believe. Measuring 119 x 71 x 36.3mm and weighing 285g without a lens attached, it's just a little smaller and 50g lighter than the very similar Olympus E-P1 camera. Instead of a traditional DSLR hand-grip, the DMC-GF1 has a slightly raised vertical area on the front-right which isn't big or pronounced enough to be of much assistance. The rubberized thumb-rest on the rear is a lot more useful. I naturally gripped the camera with the thumb, middle and fourth finger of my right hand, whilst operating the shutter button with my fore-finger and supporting either the lens or camera body with my left hand.

The other weight- and space- saving measure is the absence of a viewfinder, with just the LCD screen on the rear providing an out-of-the-box solution for composing your images. There is an optional electronic viewfinder which slots into the external hotshoe on top of the camera and which cleverly tilts through 90 degrees, making it easy to use the Panasonic GF1 at waist-level. Less clever is the high price-tag, a rather eye-watering £165 / $200, and fitting the live view finder obviously means that you can't use an external flashgun at the same time.

As the EVF is reading the same signal from the image sensor as the rear LCD screen, it can also display similar information - for example, you can view and operate the GF1's Quick Menu, giving quick access to all the key camera settings while it's held up to your eye, and even play back your images. A small LVF/LCD button on the side of the live view finder is used for manually switching between the two viewing methods and there's also a dioptre control for glasses wearers.

In practice it does turn out to be a useful accessory, as holding the Panasonic GF1 at arm's length to to compose an image won't be to everyone's taste, especially when using the comparatively big and heavy 45-200mm zoom lens. Manual focus users need not apply though, as the resolution of the live view finder isn't high enough to allow for accurate focusing - thankfully the rear LCD screen is much better for this. Another downside of the GF1's EVF accessory occurs indoors in low light, as it has to "gain-up" to produce a usable picture, resulting in a noticeably grainier picture. Compared to the fantastic high-resolution electronic view finders of the G1 and GH1, this optional accessory trails in a rather distant last place.

If you've ever used a Panasonic compact camera, you will instantly be at home with the DMC-GF1. It's very much like the DMC-LX3 model on steroids! Whilst not as charismatic as the retro Olympus Pen, the GF1 is a handsome camera with more of an obviously electronic feel to it. Overall the DMC-GF1 is extremely well-built, with a high quality aluminum body, lens mount and tripod socket.

While the body of the GF1 is certainly small and light, the lenses are where Panasonic have really shrunk the overall system. The GF1 ships with either the 14-45mm lens, which is also one of the G1's kit lenses, or more interestingly the new 20mm pancake lens. Providing an equivalent focal length of 40mm, this prime lens is the perfect partner for the GF1, keeping the size of the overall system to a minimum and really looking the part. You can just about squeeze this combination into a coat pocket or handbag, impressive for a camera with DSLR aspirations. It also has a fast maximum aperture of f/1.7, making the GF1 perfect for use in low-light conditions and easy to effectively blur the background to help emphasise the main subject.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1 Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1
Front Rear

Despite the system being so new, Panasonic have been quite busy on the lens front, with four other Micro Four Thirds lenses currently available in addition to the 20mm and 14-45mm - the new 45mm macro, 7-14mm wide-angle, 45-200mm and 14-150mm telephoto lenses which were released along with the G1 and GH1. You can also use regular Four Thirds lenses or even Leica D lenses via optional adapters from either Panasonic or third-parties, but lenses that are not compatible with the GF1's Contrast AF function can only be used with manual focusing and cannot use the Tracking AF, AFc (Auto Focus Continuous) or Continuous AF functions.

Optical image stabilisation is supplied via the lens, rather than being built-in to the camera body, a key difference between the Panasonic and Olympus systems. Note that the 20mm pancake lens does not offer image stabilisation. If available, it can be turned on and off via the Mega O.I.S switch on the lens barrel, with three different modes accessible through the DMC-GF1's menu system. When enabled, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1 automatically compensates for camera shake, which is a slight blurring of the image that typically occurs at slow shutter speeds when the camera is hand held.

There are three different modes, Mode 1 is on all the time including image composition, Mode 2 is only on when you press the shutter button, and Mode 3 compensates for up and down movements only (which in turn allows you to pan the camera). In practice I found that it does make a noticeable difference, especially with the 45-200mm telephoto lens. You don't notice that the camera is actually doing anything different when anti-shake is turned on, just that you can use slower shutter speeds than normal and still take sharp photos.

The rear of the Panasonic DMC-GF1 is dominated by the large 3 inch LCD screen. I found that the 460K pixel, high-resolution screen coped admirably with the majority of lighting conditions. This screen is a great improvement on cameras with the usual 230K dot resolution, even being nice to use in low-light. The LCD operates at 60fps, twice the usual speed, which helps make it relatively flicker-free. The Auto Power LCD function automatically detects the current lighting conditions and boosts the LCD backlighting by up to 40% when shooting outdoors in bright sunshine, helping to keep the screen visible.

In addition to the LCD monitor, the rear of the Panasonic GF1 has a dedicated button for opening the cleverly designed pop-up flash. Given the small size of the GF1, fitting a built-in flash was no mean feat, as proven by the double-hinged design which is quite a technical achievement. Although not particularly powerful with a guide number of just 6, the GF1's flash is perfectly adequate for fill-in effects at close-quarters. It's also positioned quite high above the lens, helping reduce the effects of red-eye.

To the right of the flash hotshoe is the Playback button, conveniently located AF/AE Lock button, AF/MF button, Q. Menu button, traditional 4-way navigation D-Pad system with Menu/Set button in the centre, Display button and Preview/Delete button. Pressing left, up, right and down on the D-Pad buttons selects AF Mode, ISO, White Balance and Function options respectively. The Function button can be configured to activate one of five key settings - I chose metering mode. The Q.Menu button is a very welcome addition which provides quick access to most of the principal controls, including ISO speed, image size, image quality and white balance. You can still access all of these options from the main menu system too.

In shooting mode, the Display button alternates between turning the display off, the main camera settings as icons, and no settings at all. The Delete button intriguingly has a second function - it doubles up as the new Preview button. This very cleverly shows a live preview of the effects of the current shutter speed, which will prove especially useful for beginners, providing a visible way of checking how different shutter speeds will affect the capture of different subjects - running water is a good example.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1 Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1
Front

Pop-up Flash

One other control completes the rear of the Panasonic GF1 - a small control wheel is positioned top-right above the rear thumb-grip. This lets you set the aperture, shutter speed and exposure compensation when using the more creative shooting modes, with a simple press switching between the various options. It's a little more recessed than I would have liked, and a second dial on the front would have made it easier for manual shooters.

Found on top of the Panasonic DMC-GF1 are the external flash hotshoe and built-in pop-up flash, burst mode/bracketing/self-timer switch, on/off switch, and large tactile shutter button. There's also a traditional dial that lets you choose the different exposure modes. The usual selection of Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual are available for the more experienced photographers. This dial is a typical feature of SLR cameras, and enables you to quickly change between the various modes. An optional exposure meter can be displayed in the P/A/S/M shooting modes which graphically shows the relationship between shutter speed and aperture, with a color-coded warning that alerts users when the settings are not in the proper range.

The more beginner-friendly Scene modes and Intelligent Auto are also accessed via this dial. One scene mode particularly worthy of mention is the new Peripheral Defocus option, which makes it easy for beginners to achieve a blurred bacground / sharp subject effect without having to understand what apertures are. Additionally there are two custom modes, marked C1 and C2, which allow you to configure your favourite settings and quickly access them, and a My Color mode which sets the brightness, saturation and color of the image before you take it.

Intelligent Auto mode tries to make things as easy as possible for the complete beginner. It allows you to point and shoot the camera without having to worry about choosing the right scene mode or settings. Intelligent Auto Mode automatically determines a number of key criteria when taking a picture, including selecting the most appropriate scene mode (from 5 commonly used presets) and ISO speed, and turning face detection (up to 15 faces), image stabilization and quick auto-focus on.

The Intelligent Auto Mode includes Intelligent Exposure, which increases exposure only in the under-exposed areas of the image, Digital Red-eye, which automatically detects and removes red-eye, and AF Tracking, which continually tracks a moving subject and keeps it in focus, without you having to hold the shutter button halfway down as on most other cameras. Intelligent Exposure and Digital Red-eye can also be turned on in the other shooting modes via the main menu.

Face Recognition is a fun and genuinely useful new feature, which "remembers" up to 6 registered faces and then always prioritizes the focus and exposure for that person in future pictures. Very useful for group shots where you want your loved ones to be the centre of attention. You can specify the age of the registered subject, stamp the age of the subject onto your photos, change the focus icon for a particular person, and playback only the photos that contain a certain face. The camera will even automatically switch to Baby mode if someone registered as less than 3 years old appears in the frame!

In practice the Intelligent Auto Mode system works very well, with the Panasonic GF1 seamlessly choosing the most appropriate combination of settings for the current situation. The 5 available scene modes are Portrait, Landscape, Macro, Night Portrait and Night Scenery, so obviously not all situations are covered by Intelligent Auto Mode, but it does work for the majority of the time. It makes it possible for the less experienced photographer to easily take well-exposed, sharp pictures of people, scenery and close-ups by simply pointing and shooting the camera. Also catering for the beginner are a total of 10 different scene modes.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1 Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1
Live View Finder G1 v GF1

The Panasonic DMC-GF1 has a small dedicated Motion Picture button to the right of the shutter button. As you'd expect, it allows you to start recording a movie with a single push of a button, and then stop recording by pressing the same button, regardless of which shooting mode is currently selected. This is a lot more intuitive than having to select the movie mode then press the shutter button, as on most cameras.

The DMC-GF1 can record 720p HD 1280 x 720 movies at 50 fps (interpolated from 25 fps) in the AVCHD Lite (MPEG-4/H.264) format or at 30fps in the Motion JPEG format. In addition it can also record Motion JPEG movies at 320 x 240 at 30fps, 640 x 480 at 30fps, and 848 x 480 at 30fps, useful as this format can currently be shared more easily. AVCHD features almost double the recording time in HD quality compared with Motion JPEG, but software support is currently a bit thin on the ground. Panasonic describe it as the best mode for playing back on a HD TV direct from the camera, and Motion JPEG best for email and playing on a computer. Disappointingly only mono sound is recorded during video capture, bit it is at least helped by the wind cut function which blocks out most of the noise from background wind. You can't fit an optional external stereo microphone either. The HDMI port allows you to connect the GF1 to a high-def TV set, but only if you purchase the optional HDMI mini-cable.

The GF1 has a simplified version of the Creative Movie shooting mode found on the GH1 camera. It allows you to manually set the aperture before recording begins via a graphical slider. Whilst not as versatile as the GH1's system, the ability to control the aperture is convenient when there are several subjects at different distances, and in practice this system works well, allowing some creative effects.

The Panasonic GF1's Intelligent Auto mode also works in movies as well as for still photos. Simply select iA on the mode dial and press the Motion Picture button. The Intelligent Scene Selector automatically determines the most suitable Scene mode from five options - Portrait, Scenery, Low Light and Close-up or Normal modes. Face Detection automatically detects a face in the frame and adjusts the focus, exposure, contrast, and skin complexion. Intelligent Exposure continually checks the ambient light level and adjusts the exposure setting as conditions change to prevent blown highlights and blocked shadows. The Optical Image Stabilizer helps prevent blurring from hand-shake when using a compatible lens.

You can obviously use any zoom lens during recording with focusing set as for still images. On the negative side, you'll find that if you choose continuous auto-focus, areas of the video will be blurred before becoming sharp again as the camera tries to refocus. On a more positive note, the the GF1 is quite fast at re-focusing, and having this system is much better than not being able to auto-focus at all, as with all current DSLR cameras that offer video recording. Hand-holding the GF1 during movie recording inevitably leads to obvious shake, despite the optical image stabilizer on compatible lenses, so for best results you'll need a dedicated video tripod.

Unlike a conventional DSLR camera which uses a phase detection auto-focus system, the DMC-GF1 employs the same Contrast AF that is commonly used by compact cameras. As with the Live View Finder, experienced photographers will now be tutting loudly at the thought of having to use a traditionally slower system. I'm happy to be able to report that this decision hasn't resulted in a slow and unpredictable AF - quite the contrary in fact. There were very few occasions when the GF1 failed to lock onto the subject, especially when using the centre AF point. There are a wide range of AF modes on offer, including multiple-area AF with up to 23 focus areas, 1-area AF with a selectable focus area, Face Detection, and AF Tracking. The GF1 also has a useful Quick AF function that begins focusing as soon as you point the camera.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1 Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1
Memory Card Slot Battery Compartment

In a throwback to the days before digital took over the world, the GF1 offers a range of Film Modes via a main menu option, with 6 colour types and 3 types of monochrome to choose from. This applies to both JPEG and RAW files, so you can effectively shoot a black and white RAW file, for example, out of the camera if you wish (although I'm not sure why you'd want to...). As you select a different Film Mode, the effects can clearly be seen on the LCD screen. In addition, you can change the contrast, sharpness, noise reduction and saturation levels for each one, and even create 2 custom modes of your own. The Multi Film option takes up to three consecutive images using different Film Mode settings (this doesn't work in RAW mode though).

On the front of the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1 is the small focus-assist and self-timer indicator lamp, lens release button, lens mount, and the tiny hand-grip. On the bottom is a metal tripod socket, importantly in-line with the middle of the lens barrel, and the combined battery compartment and SD/SDHC memory card slot. On the left side is the Remote /Mic socket for use with the optional remote shutter release or external microphone, and two connection ports, including a HDMI port for connecting the GF1 to a HD television or monitor. Unfortunately, Panasonic have decided to cut costs and not include a HDMI cable as standard in the box, which means that you'll have to purchase one separately to take advantage of this camera's HD connectivity.

The main menu system on the DMC-GF1 is straight-forward to use and is accessed by pressing the Menu/Set button in the middle of the navigation D-Pad. There are six main menus, Record, Motion Picture, Custom, Setup, My Menu and Playback. Most of the camera's main options, such as white balance, image quality, auto-focus mode and ISO speed, are accessed here, so the Record menu has 22 options spread over 5 screens, the Motion Picture menu has 7 options over 2 screens, and the Setup menu has 22 options over 5 screens. As an indication of how configurable the GF1 is, the Custom menu has 23 different options, allowing you fine-tune this camera to suit your way of working.

As mentioned previously, the addition of the Q.Menu button on the rear of the camera speeds up access to some of the more commonly used options. Due to the large LCD screen and restricting the number of on-screen choices to five, the various options and icons are clear and legible. If you have never used a digital camera before, or you're upgrading from a more basic model, reading the easy-to-follow manual before you start is a good idea. Thankfully Panasonic have chosen to supply it in printed format, rather than as a PDF on a CD, so you can also carry it with you for easy reference.

The start-up time from turning the Lumix DMC-GF1 on to being ready to take a photo is very impressive at less than 0.5 seconds, especially given that it automatically activates the camera's dust-reduction system. The supersonic wave filter in front of the Live MOS sensor vibrates 50,000 times per second to remove the dust from the sensor. The Contrast Auto-Focusing system is quick in good light and the camera achieves focus most of the time indoors or in low-light situations, helped by the AF assist lamp - the GF1 doesn't have any notable problems locking onto the subject in low-light situations. The visibility and refresh rate of the 3 inch LCD screen are very good, and the pixel count of 460,000 is excellent, with virtually no visible grain.

It takes about 1 second to store a JPEG image, allowing you to keep shooting as they are being recorded onto the memory card - there is a barely perceptible LCD blackout between each image. Storing a single RAW image takes around 3 seconds, but thankfully it doesn't lock up the camera in any way - you can use the menu system or shoot another image while the first file is being written to memory. The Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1 has a pretty standard Burst mode which enables you to take 3 frames per second for an unlimited number of JPEG images at the highest image quality, or 7 RAW images. Overall the Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1 is about average in terms of operational speed compared to a DSLR, and certainly much faster than most compacts.

Once you have captured a photo, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1 has an average range of options when it comes to playing, reviewing and managing your images. You can instantly scroll through the images that you have taken, view thumbnails (up to 30 onscreen at the same time and in a Calendar view), zoom in and out up to 16x magnification, view slideshows, delete, protect, trim, resize, copy and rotate an image. You can also select favourite images, change an image's aspect ratio, add a sound clip to an image, delete Face Recognition data, and set the print order. The Display button toggles detailed settings information about each picture on and off, such as the ISO rating and aperture / shutter speed, and there is a small brightness histogram available during shooting and RGBY histogram during playback.

Entry Tags

hd video, hd, 3 inch LCD, compact, 720p, DSLR, micro four thirds, high definition, 3fps, dmc-gf1, gf1, dmc gf1, Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1 Review, panasonic gf1

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