Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF2 Review
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF2 Introduction
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF2 is the World's smallest and lightest compact system camera with a built-in flash. Replacing the popular GF1 model, the new GF2 is is 19% smaller in size and 7% less in weight than its predecessor, thanks largely to the introduction of a touch-control interface via the 3 inch 460,000-dot LCD screen. The DMC-GF2 also offers full HD movies at 1920 x 1080 at 60i (NTSC) / 50i (PAL) in AVCHD format with stereo sound, a new Graphic User Interface, a 12.1-megapixel Live MOS sensor, Venus Engine FHD image processor, expanded ISO range of 100-6400, a built-in pop-up flash and 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. Available in black, silver and, red, pink and white, in the UK the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF2 will be available in January 2011 with either the 14-42mm lens for £599.99, 14mm lens for £629.99 or a 14-42m / 14mm twin lens kit for £729.99.
Ease of Use
The GF2 is undoubtedly smaller than its predecessor, the GF1, but it's not quite as tiny as the diminutive Sony NEX 5 and 3 compact system cameras, although they suffer in comparison by not having a built-in flash unit. Measuring 112.8 x 67.8 x 32.8 mm and weighing 265g without a lens attached or battery inserted, the GF2 is quite a lot smaller and 20g lighter than the GF1 and not too much bigger than the LX5 compact, mostly through the removal of the shooting mode dial and several other external controls. The DMC-GF2 has a slightly raised and curved vertical area on the front-right of the body which acts as a handgrip. It's a little larger than the GF1's but still not 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. If you've ever used a Panasonic compact camera, you will instantly feel at home with the DMC-GF2. It's very much like the DMC-LX5 model on steroids! Whilst not as charismatic as the retro Olympus Pen models, the GF2 is a handsome camera with more of an obviously electronic feel to it, and is also extremely well-built, with a high quality aluminum body, lens mount and tripod socket.
While the body of the GF2 is certainly small and light, the lenses are where Panasonic have really shrunk the overall system, and the tiny new 14mm pancake lens is no exception, weighing a mere 55g. The GF2 ships with either the 14-42mm lens, which is also the G2's kit lens, or more interestingly the 14mm pancake lens. Providing an equivalent wide-angle focal length of 28mm, this prime lens is a good partner for the GF2, 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/2.5, making the GF2 perfect for use in low-light conditions and easier to blur the background to help emphasise the main subject. A natural addition to your GF2 kit would be the 20mm pancake lens, which provides a 40mm focal length and an even faster maximum aperture of f/1.7.
The Micro Four Thirds system is now relatively well-established, with quite a lot of lenses on offer from Panasonic and Olympus that cover most of the popular focal lengths. 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 GF2'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 14mm 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-GF2's menu system. When enabled, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF2 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.
Just like the GF1, the GF2 doesn't have a built-in 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, thankfully the same model that fits the GF1, making it easy to use the Panasonic GF2 at waist-level. Less clever is the high price-tag, a rather eye-watering £165 / $200, and fitting the live viewfinder obviously means that you can't use an external flashgun at the same time. As the electronic viewfinder 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 GF2'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 viewfinder is used for manually switching between the two viewing methods and there's also a dioptre control for glasses wearers.
In practice the electronic viewfinder turns out to be a useful accessory, as holding the Panasonic GF2 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 viewfinder isn't high enough to allow for accurate focusing - thankfully the rear LCD screen is much better for this. Another downside of the electronic viewfinder 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 viewfinders of the G2 and GH2, this optional accessory trails in a rather distant last place.
The rear of the Panasonic DMC-GF2 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, aided by a new anti-reflective coating. 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.
The GF2's main innovation is its touchscreen interface, with a newly revamped GUI that's easy on the eye. Panasonic have wisely restricted the amount of things that you can do by interacting with the screen, and indeed you can still operate everything on the camera without having to push and prod the LCD at all. But you would be missing out on a lot of genuinely useful functionality that really improves the shooting experience.
The most immediately noticeable function is the ability to use the 1-area AF mode to focus on your main subject simply by touching it on the LCD. If the subject then moves, the GF2 cleverly follows it around the screen using the the AF tracking function. If the subject exits the frame entirely, simply recompose and tap it again to start focusing. Impressive stuff that makes focusing on off-center subjects fast and intuitive. It is a little too easy to accidentally press the screen and set the focus point to the wrong area for the current subject, but a simple tap in the middle of the LCD will center the AF point (or you can turn this feature off altogether).
The size of the AF point itself can also be changed via an interactive onscreen slider. If Face Detection is enabled, the 1-area AF point can be manually set to a person's eye to help ensure that the most important part of a portrait is in focus. If Multi-area AF rather than 1-area AF is enabled, then you can select a group of 4, 5 or 6 AF points from 23 different areas, again providing some manual control over what is traditionally a rather hit and miss affair.
When Intelligent Auto is switched on, the GF2 changes the scene mode used when you touch the subject, for example selecting portrait mode if you touch a face and macro mode if you touch a close-up flower. If you prefer to manually focus rather than use the snappy AF, you can magnify any part of the subject by 1x, 5x or 10x by simply dragging the image around the screen. The final touchscreen ability from an image composition point of view is the ability to release the shutter, with a small icon on the right hand screen enabling this functionality, and then a single on-screen tap all that's required to take the picture. The Peripheral Defocus mode can be adjusted by simply moving the slider with your finger, making it easy to set and preview what is in and out of focus as you move it.
Most of the menu options can be changed via the touchscreen interface, notably the Quick Menu and the Info Display menu - the main exception to this rule is the Main Menu, which is still controlled via the navigation buttons. You can also control image playback by touching the screen, with the ability to tap a thumbnail to see the full-size version, scroll through your images by dragging them from side to side, and magnifying them up to 16x.
In addition to the LCD monitor, the rear of the Panasonic GF2 has a dedicated button for opening the cleverly re-designed pop-up flash. Given the small size of the GF2, 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 GF2's flash is perfectly adequate for fill-in effects at close-quarters. The GF2's flash is slightly slimmer and also higher above the lens than on the GF1 thanks to the clever design, helping reduce the effects of red-eye.
To the right of the LCD screen is a simplified control layout compared to the GF1. There's a grill for the speaker, a Playback button, traditional 4-way navigation D-Pad system with Menu/Set button in the centre, and a combined Q. Menu/Fn Delete button. Pressing left, up, right and down on the D-Pad buttons selects AF Mode, ISO, White Balance and Burst / Self-timer options respectively. The Q.Menu button provides quick access to most of the principal controls via a much improved onscreen menu, which displays by default the aspect ratio, size, quality, metering and focus mode, and you can also configure it to include up to 10 out of 19 available settings simply by dragging and dropping the onscreen icons. You can still access all of these options from the main menu system too if you wish.
Several buttons have been removed, either superseded by the GF2's touchscreen interface or quietly dropped altogether. These include the AF/AE Lock button, AF/MF button, Display button, DOF Preview and separate Fn and Delete buttons. I missed the AF/AE Lock button most of all, which was conveniently positioned next to the thumb-grip on the GF1 and allowed you to quickly and easily lock the exposure, focus or both together. You can assign one function to the Fn button that's located below the navigation pad, including AF/AE Lock, but this is less conveniently positioned, has a limitation of one assignable function, and even worse removes access to the Quick Menu via a button because Fn and Quick Menu share the same control.
One other control completes the rear of the Panasonic GF2 - 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 smaller and more recessed than I would have liked, and a second dial on the front would have made it easier for manual shooters.
The other big design change is on top of the GF2. The external flash hotshoe and built-in pop-up flash are still present, as are the on/off switch, large tactile shutter button and one-touch movie button, but the handy dial that let you choose the different exposure modes has been removed, as has the burst shooting switch. Instead you now have to press an icon in the top-right of the touch-screen interface to access the Record menu and set the exposure mode. The Left and Right stereo microphones and a dedicated button for the Intelligent Auto mode which lights blue when turned on are new additions to the top of the GF2 in place of the shooting mode dial.
The usual selection of Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual are available for the more experienced photographers. 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 the Record menu. One scene mode particularly worthy of mention is the Peripheral Defocus option, which makes it easy for beginners to achieve a blurred background / sharp subject effect without having to understand what apertures are. Additionally there are three custom modes, marked C1, C2 and C3, which allow you to configure your favourite settings and quickly access them, and a revised My Color mode which provides preset combinations of different sharpness, contrast, saturation and noise reduction settings.
Now accessed by a new dedicated button on top of the camera, 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 GF2 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 17 different scene modes.
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF2's Intelligent Resolution mode makes a standard image look like a higher resolution one by processing the contour areas, texture areas and smooth areas individually. There are three available strengths - low, standard and high. Despite all the clever behind-the-scenes processing, it's fairly easy to tell which image was taken with Intelligent Resolution turned on and which one with it turned off due to unwanted artifacts appearing, particularly if viewing onscreen at 100% magnification. While the difference isn't quite so apparent on a print up to A3 in size, I'm not convinced enough to recommend regularly using it.
The Panasonic DMC-GF2 has a small dedicated Motion Picture button located 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-GF2 can record 1080i HD 1920 x 1280 movies at 60 fps (interpolated from 30 fps) or 720p at 1280 x 720 at 60fps in the AVCHD Lite (MPEG-4/H.264) format. In addition it can also record Motion JPEG movies at 320 x 240, 640 x 480, 848 x 480 and 1280 x 720, all 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 still 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. Stereo sound is now recorded during video capture, 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 which is a little disappointing. The HDMI port allows you to connect the GF2 to a high-def TV set, but only if you purchase the optional HDMI mini-cable.
The Panasonic GF2'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 D-range 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. One cool benefit of the touch-screen control system is that Touch Auto Focusing is available in movie recording, enabling pro-level rack-like focusing simply by pointing at the subject on the LCD screen.
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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 GF2 is quite fast at re-focusing, and having this system is much better than not being able to auto-focus at all, as with most current DSLR cameras that offer video recording. Hand-holding the GF2 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-GF2 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 GF2 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 GF2 also has a useful Quick AF function that begins focusing as soon as you point the camera.
On the front of the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF2 is a small focus-assist and self-timer indicator lamp, lens release button, lens mount, and the 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/SDXC memory card slot. The GF2 uses a new battery (DMW-BLD10) which has a lower capacity than the GF1's and therefore a shorter battery life of 300 shots compared to the 380 shots of the GF1. On the right side are two connection ports, including a HDMI port for connecting the GF2 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. Also the remote control socket from the GF1 has been removed on the GF2, which means that yoiu'll need to use the self-timer for long exposures, a much less convenient solution.
The main menu system on the DMC-GF2 is straight-forward to use and is accessed by pressing the Menu/Set button in the middle of the navigation D-Pad. There are five main menus, Record, Motion Picture, Custom, Setup, and Playback. As mentioned previously, the addition of the Q.Menu button on the rear of the camera or via the touch-screen speeds up access to some of the more commonly used options. 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-GF2 on to being ready to take a photo is very impressive at less than 0.5 second, 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 GF2 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-GF2 has a pretty standard Burst mode which enables you to take 3.2 frames per second or 2.6 fps in Live View mode 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-GF2 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 icon 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.