Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3 Review
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The Lumix DMC-GF3 is Panasonic's smallest and lightest compact system camera to date. Supplementing the larger and more complex GF2 model, the new Panasonic GF3 features a FourThirds sized 12.1-megapixel Live MOS sensor, built-in pop-up flash and a 3 inch touch-sensitive LCD screen with a resolution of 460,000 dots. The DMC-GF3 also offers full HD movies at 1920 x 1080 at 60i (NTSC) / 50i (PAL) in AVCHD format with stereo sound and full-time auto-focus, 4fps continuous shooting, fast contrast-detect auto-focus system that can lock onto a subject in approximately 0.1-0.18 second, Venus Engine FHD processor, RAW support and an ISO range of 160-6400. The Panasonic GF3 is available in black, red or white in a kit with the 14mm f/2.5 pancake lens for £549.99 / $699.95.
Ease of Use
The Panasonic GF3 is even smaller than its predecessor, the GF2, by approximately 16.7% in size and 16.2% in weight, measuring 107.7 x 67.1 x 32.5mm and weighing 222g without a lens attached or battery inserted. With a pancake lens like Panasonic’s own 14mm f/2.5 fitted, the GF3 is about the same size as a typical fixed-lens compact camera, even though it boasts a much bigger sensor. The GF3 is not much bigger than the LX5 compact, mostly through the lack of a shooting mode dial and several other external controls, and the adoption of touchscreen technology.
Importantly this significant reduction in size makes the GF3 smaller than the diminutive Sony NEX 5 and 3 compact system cameras, which additionally suffer in comparison by not having a built-in flash unit. Indeed, Panasonic claims that the GF3 2 "breaks the record of being the world's smallest and lightest system camera", although the newly-announced Olympus E-PM1 gives it a run for its money. If you're looking for the smallest possible compact system camera, then the Panasonic GF3 certainly fits the bill.
The main changes versus the GF2 - apart from the obvious size/weight reduction and design overhaul - include the omission of the flash hot-shoe / accessory terminal and the rear-mounted thumb-wheel, and the inclusion of a scroll wheel around the four-way pad, a first on a Panasonic Lumix G Micro System camera. Another change to the user interface is that the Up button is now dedicated to exposure compensation rather than ISO sensitivity, which may dismay some enthusiasts.
The mechanical button for the pop-up flash has also been retained, although its position changed somewhat along with that of the flash itself. The top-mounted controls - including the shutter release, movie record button, power switch and dedicated intelligent Auto button - have been reshuffled and grouped more tightly together, but otherwise remain essentially the same both in appearance and functionality. The GF2's stereo microphones have given way to a more modest monaural mic.
The DMC-GF3 has a significantly raised and curved vertical area on the front-right of the body which acts as a handgrip, allowing you to hold the camera with three fingers whilst operating the shutter button with your forefinger. This works in tandem with the useful rubberized thumb-rest on the rear. The GF3 sports a new design characterised by clean lines, gentle curves and a polished exterior. Whilst still not as charismatic as the retro Olympus Pen models, the GF3 is a handsomely futuristic camera with more of an obviously electronic feel to it, and is also extremely well-built despite its mid-range price-point, with a high quality aluminum body, lens mount and tripod socket.
While the body of the GF3 is amazingly small and light, the lenses are still where Panasonic have really shrunk the overall system, and the tiny 14mm pancake lens is no exception, weighing a mere 55g. Interestingly the GF3 only ships with the 14mm lens, rather than a zoom lens like the 14-42mm. Providing an equivalent wide-angle focal length of 28mm, this prime lens is a good partner for the GF3, keeping the size of the overall system to a bare 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 GF3 perfect for use in low-light conditions and easier to blur the background to help emphasise the main subject. A natural addition to your GF3 kit would be the 20mm pancake lens, which provides a 40mm focal length and an even faster maximum aperture of f/1.7.
We also tried the GF3 with physically larger 14-42mm and 45-200mm lenses, and this is where this tiny camera shows some of its limitations. As you can see from the pictures on the Product Images page, even the 14-42mm looks big when mounted on the GF3, particularly at full zoom, while the 45-200mm is so large that the bottom of the GF3 can't actually rest properly on a flat surface!
Just like the GF1 and GF2 before it, the GF3 doesn't have a built-in viewfinder, with just the LCD screen on the rear providing a solution for composing your images. A more important consideration is the GF3's complete lack of an external hotshoe, which prevents the use of the optical viewfinder accessory. This inability to hold the camera up to your eye makes it very difficult to hand-hold the camera to compose using the LCD screen and still get sharp results using the longer focal lengths. As the ability to use different lenses is one of the main selling points of a system camera, the lack of an eye-level finder is rather limiting.
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 GF3'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-GF3's menu system.
When enabled, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3 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.
On the front of the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3 is a small focus-assist and self-timer indicator lamp, lens release button, lens mount and the already mentioned hand-grip. On the bottom is a metal tripod socket, importantly in-line with the middle of the lens barrel, and the shared battery compartment and SD/SDHC/SDXC memory card slot. The GF3 manages just over 325 shots using the supplied DMW-BLE9E 7.2V 940mAh rechargeable Li-ion battery. On the right-hand side are ports for the HDMI and AV Out/Digital connections, with tiny metal eyelets on either side of the body for the supplied camera strap. Unfortunately, Panasonic don't 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 top of the GF3 has a microphone, monoaural speaker, cleverly designed built-in pop-up flash, dedicated button for the Intelligent Auto mode which lights blue when turned on, tactile shutter button, on/off switch, and a one-touch movie button. The Panasonic GF3 has a dedicated button for opening the cleverly designed pop-up flash. Given the small size of the GF3, 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 6.3, the GF3's flash is perfectly adequate for fill-in effects at close-quarters.
The rear of the Panasonic DMC-GF3 is dominated by the large 3 inch LCD screen. The 460K pixel, high-resolution screen coped admirably with the majority of lighting conditions, aided by an 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, although the lack of an optical viewfinder is a hindrance on the rare occasions that the rear LCD is difficult to see.
One of the GF3's main innovations is its touchscreen interface, with a 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 most things 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 GF3 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 or the rear scroll wheel. 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 9 different areas, again providing some manual control over what is traditionally a rather hit and miss affair. The Pinpoint AF auto-focus area mode allows you to touch the area of the frame where your subject is, whereupon said area gets magnified in order to allow you to set the focus point with pinpoint accuracy using a second touch. While this method is obviously slower than the others, it can be very useful when shooting, say, a portrait with shallow depth of field where you will want to make sure focus is on the subject’s eyes rather than her nose, ears or eyebrows.
When Intelligent Auto is switched on, the GF3 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.
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 mostly 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.
To the right of the LCD screen is a simplified control layout compared to the GF2. There's 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, Exposure Compensation, White Balance and Burst / Self-timer options respectively. The Q.Menu button provides quick access to most of the principal controls via an 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.
New to the GF-series is a circular scroll wheel surrounding the D-Pad. This wheel is used for, amongst other things, changing the aperture and shutter speed by turning from left to right and back again. This is a common feature found on other high-end compacts and entry-level DSLR cameras, so you'll be right at home if you've used a DSLR before - more basic compact camera users will need to get used to using this wheel.
The main menu system on the DMC-GF3 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 represented by large icons, Rec Mode, Record, Motion Picture, Custom, Setup and Playback. As an indication of how configurable the GF3 is, the Custom menu has 24 different options, allowing you to fine-tune this camera to suit your way of working. 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. Unfortunately Panasonic have only chosen to supply a basic guide in printed format, with the full manual only available as a PDF on the product CD.
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 Mode 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 is a custom mode which allows you to configure your favourite settings and quickly access them.
The G2's My Color mode has been replaced by the new range of Creative Controls, denoted by an artist's palette, with 5 options - Expressive, Retro, High Key, Sepia, High Dynamic Range and Miniature - on offer. Some are more useful than others, and I'm not quite sure why these modes deserve their own special place on the shooting mode menu, rather than being grouped together with the Photo Styles in the Main Menu. It's presumably because you lose control of the exposure and other key settings when using the Creative Controls, whereas the 6 available Photo Styles still allow full control of the camera's settings.
Accessed via the dedicated red iA 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 Plus Mode also 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.
The 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 - and an Extended option which increase the zoom range. 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.
Intelligent Dynamic adjusts the exposure setting to record more detail in the highlights and shadows, with three strengths available - low, standard and high. It's actually very effective for high-contrast scenes when the camera tends to blow-out the highlights and block-up the shadows. You can see some examples for both Intelligent Resolution and Intelligent Dynamic on the Image Quality page.
The GF3 offers Full 1080i HD 1920 x 1080 movies at 60/50 frames per second, and 720p HD 1280 x 720 movies at 60 fps, both in the AVCHD (MPEG-4/H.264) format. In addition it can also record Motion JPEG movies at 320 x 240 at 30fps, 640 x 480 at 30fps, 848 x 480 at 30fps and 1280 x 720 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 little 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. There is a limit on the length of a movie of up to 29 min 59 sec in European PAL areas, and continuous recording exceeding 2GB is not possible when recording in the motion JPEG format.
There's also a useful wind cut function which blocks out most of the noise from background wind. The thumb-operated dedicated movie button on the top makes it simple to start record video footage at whatever quality level is currently selected. The HDMI port allows you to connect the GF3 to a high-def TV set, but only if you purchase the optional HDMI mini-cable. You can extract a frame from a movie during playback and save it as a small still image.
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The Panasonic GF3's Intelligent Auto mode works for movies as well as for still photos. Simply press the iA button on top of the camera, then the Movie Record 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 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 GF3 is quite fast at re-focusing (although not as fast as for still images), 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 GF3 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. One great 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.
Unlike a conventional DSLR camera which uses a phase detection auto-focus system, the DMC-GF3 employs the same Contrast AF that is commonly used by compact cameras. As with the EVF, 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 opposite in fact. Panasonic have published marketing data which suggests that the GF3's AF is as fast, if not faster, than a typical DSLR camera's, with a claimed speed of less than 0.1 second when used with certain lenses, and a still impressive 0.18 second with the 14-42mm lens.
In practice I noticed very little difference in speed between the GF3 and a DSLR, and there were also very few occasions when the GF3 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, AF Tracking and Pinpoint. The GF3 also has a useful Quick AF function that begins focusing as soon as you point the camera.
The start-up time from turning the Lumix DMC-GF3 on to being ready to take a photo is very impressive at less than 0.5 seconds. 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 4 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-GF3 has a pretty good Burst mode which enables you to take 4 frames per second for an unlimited number of JPEG images at the highest image quality, or 7 RAW images. There's also a faster 20fps mode, but the images are only recorded at 4 megapixels.
Once you have captured a photo, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3 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, divide a video 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 if enabled in the menu. You can also turn on guide-lines to help with composition and flashing highlights which indicate any over-exposed areas of the image.
In summary, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3 is a smaller and lighter evolution of the previous GF2 model, with a few significant usability sacrifices made in order to achieve its diminutive size and cheaper price-point. Now let's take a look at its image quality on the next page...