Panasonic Lumix DMC-GX1 Review
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GX1 Introduction
The Lumix DMC-GX1 is Panasonic's new premium compact system camera. Marking a return to the prosumer-friendly ethos of the 2 year old GF1 model, the Panasonic GX1 features a FourThirds sized 16-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-GX1 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, 4.2fps continuous shooting, fast contrast-detect auto-focus system that can lock onto a subject in approximately 0.09 second, Venus Engine processor, RAW support and an ISO range of 160-12800. The Panasonic GX1 is available in Gunmetal Grey and Raven Black for £499.99 / $699.99 body only, £599.99 / $799.99 with the standard 14-42mm kit lens, and £729.99 / $899.99 with the new 14-42mm power-zoom lens.
Ease of Use
The new Panasonic GX1 carries on where the popular GF1 camera left off, taking on the mantle of being a small, compact interchangeable-lens camera with all the functionality, controls and degree of customisation that an enthusiast could want. It's therefore quite a departure from the GF2 and GF3 models, which were in turn designed to be the smallest and lightest compact system cameras on the market, and which were also aimed predominantly at people upgrading from a compact camera. The GX1 does inherit some key features from those models, though, most notably a touch-screen interface, but the plethora of buttons means that you could completely ignore this feature if you wished.
The aluminium-bodied Panasonic GX1 is still a small camera despite its added complexity, measuring 116.3 x 67.8 x 39.4 mm and weighing 318g without a lens attached or battery inserted. With a small lens like Panasonic’s new 14-42mm power-zoom fitted, the GX1 is just about pocketable, although in a cost rather than your trousers. With the new power-zoom lens the GX1 is not much bigger than some high-end compacts, like the Canon PowerShot G12. In terms of body-only, the GX1 is very similar in size to the Sony NEX-7, although that main rival also manages to squeeze in an electronic viewfinder, articulating screen and a larger APS-C sensor.
Comparing the GF1 and GX1 side-by-side, there are actually few difference between the two in terms of their external design, perhaps a real testament to just how much the GF1 got right when it was released over 2 years ago. Starting with the front of the GX1, there's a new, very chunky hand-grip on the right that really helps with the camera's handling, although we'd have liked to see it extended to the full height of the camera to accommodate more than two fingers. This works in tandem with the useful rubberized thumb-rest on the rear. The GX1 sports a more traditional design than the GF3, characterised by more angular lines and a matt exterior. It's not as overtly retro as the Olympus PEN series nor as futuristic as the Sony NEX-7, occupying a position mid-way between the two in terms of its design ethos.
The lenses are still where Panasonic have really shrunk the overall system, and the 14-42mm power-zoom lens is no exception, weighing a mere 95g and measuring 26.8mm in length when turned off and retracted. Providing an equivalent wide-angle focal length of 28-82mm, this lens is a good partner for the GX1, 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.
To achieve such a small lens with such a wide focal range, Panasonic have completely removed the traditional zoom and manual focus rings, instead replacing them with forefinger-operated switches, hence the power zoom moniker. In practice this immediately makes the GX1 operate more like a compact camera with a zoom lever, and is inevitably slower and less precise than a conventional zoom lens. We found ourselves longing for Panasonic's standard 14-42mm kit lens on more than one occasion, although that comes at the cost of making the GX1 a physically bigger proposition. Interestingly the new 45-175mm power-zoom telephoto lens only has a switch for zooming whilst retaining both zoom and focus rings, making it much more adaptable whilst still significantly reducing the overall size of the lens.
Just like the GF1, GF2 and GF3 before it, the GX1 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. It does have an external hotshoe which allows the use of the optical viewfinder accessory, although you have to additionally purchase this optional accessory and it does prevent the use of an external flashgun at the same time. Reviewing the GX1 at the same time as the Sony NEX-7, we really missed the latter's built-in viewfinder.
The Micro Four Thirds system is now well-established, with 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 GX1'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 supplied 14-42mm power-zoom lens does offer image stabilisation, although there's no switch on the lens barrel to turn it manually on and off, just three different modes accessible through the DMC-GX1's menu system.
When enabled, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GX1 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 we found that it does make a noticeable difference, especially with the 45-175mm 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-GX1 is a small focus-assist and self-timer indicator lamp, lens release button, metal 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 GX1 manages just over 300 shots using the supplied DMW-BLE10E 7.2V 1010mAh rechargeable Li-ion battery. On the right-hand side are ports for the remote socket, HDMI and AV Out/Digital connections, with small 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. On the left-hand side is s small microphone.
The top of the GX1 houses a cleverly designed built-in pop-up flash, stereo speakers, flash hotshoe, shooting mode dial with integrated on/off switch, dedicated button for the Intelligent Auto mode which lights blue when turned on, tactile shutter button, and a one-touch movie button. The Panasonic GX1 has a dedicated button on the rear for opening the pop-up flash. Given the small size of the GX1, 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 7.6, the GX1's flash is perfectly adequate for fill-in effects at close-quarters.
The shooting mode dial offers the usual selection of Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual for the more experienced photographer. 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 are also available. 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 4 custom modes which allow you to configure your favourite camera settings and quickly access them, with the first accessible via C1 and the other 3 via C2.
Completing the various shooting modes is the new range of Creative Controls, denoted by an artist's palette, with 8 options - Expressive, Retro, High Key, Low Key, Sepia, High Dynamic, Toy 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 rear of the Panasonic DMC-GX1 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 a built-in optical viewfinder is a hindrance on the rare occasions that the rear LCD is difficult to see.
One of the GX1'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 everything on the camera without having to push and prod the LCD at all. You would be missing out on a lot of genuinely useful functionality that really improves the shooting experience, though, so we suggest that you experiment before dismissing it out-of-hand. There's also a brand new Level Gauge which automatically detects the horizontal and vertical angle of view, useful for keeping your horizons straight or creatively wonky.
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 GX1 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 of the new Reset button 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 GX1 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. The GX1 also offers a clever Touch Tab on the right-hand-side of the LCD which provides access to five icons - by default touch-zoom, touch-shutter, Function 3 and Function 4 - with the latter two allowing even more customisation of the camera.
Above the LCD screen is the aforementioned Flash button for popping-up the built-in flash, the port for the optional DMW-LVF2 electronic viewfinder, and two buttons for Playback and AF/AE Lock. The latter also doubles up as the second customisable Function button, although we'd suggest leaving it as the AF/AE control given its handy position. To the right of the LCD screen is a thumb-operated control dial for setting the aperture and/or shutter speed and also selecting menu options. Cleverly this dial can be pushed in to toggle between the aperture/shutter speed and exposure compensation. Below this is the Function 1 button, again customisable to suit you way of working, alongside a Display button which toggles detailed settings information about each picture on and off, such as the ISO rating and aperture / shutter speed.
Underneath is a traditional 4-way navigation D-Pad system with Menu/Set button in the centre. Pressing left, up, right and down on the D-Pad buttons selects AF Mode, ISO Speed, White Balance and Burst / Self-timer options respectively. The main menu system on the DMC-GX1 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 represented by large icons, Record, Motion Picture, Custom, Setup and Playback. As an indication of how configurable the GX1 is, the Custom menu has 32 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.
Underneath again is a combined Q. Menu/Delete/Reset button. 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. The AF/MF button completes the rear of the GX1, allowing you to quickly choose from AF Single, AF Flexible, AF Continuous and Manual Focus modes. AF Flexible is a new mode which conventionally locks the focus when the shutter button is half-pressed, but then automatically resets it if the subject moves.
The GX1'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 - 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, we're 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 GX1 offers Full 1080i HD 1920 x 1080 movies and 720p HD 1280 x 720 movies at 60fps, both in the AVCHD (MPEG-4/H.264) format. In addition it can also record MP4 movies at 1920x1080, 1280x720 and 640x480 pixels, all at 30fps, useful as this format can currently be shared more easily. AVCHD offers almost double the recording time in HD quality, 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, with the newly-supported MP4 format is best for email and playing on a computer.
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There's also a useful wind cut function which blocks out most of the noise from background wind and you can also display and adjust the built-in microphone level. 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 GX1 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.
The Panasonic GX1'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. Note that the GX1 doesn't offer any control over aperture or shutter speed during video recording, a rather glaring omission for a 2012 interchangeable-lens camera.
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 GX1 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 GX1 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. You can also use features like Photo Styles, metering modes, Intelligent Resolution and Intelligent Dynamic Range for video as well as stills.
Unlike a conventional DSLR camera which uses a phase detection auto-focus system, the DMC-GX1 employs the same Contrast AF that is commonly used by compact cameras. Panasonic have published marketing data which suggests that the GX1's AF is as fast, if not faster, than a typical DSLR camera's, with a claimed speed of just 0.09 second when used with certain lenses, including the 14-42mm power-zoom that we tested the GX1 with. In practice we noticed very little difference in speed between the GX1 and a DSLR, and there were also very few occasions when the GX1 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 GX1 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-GX1 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-GX1 has a pretty good Burst mode which enables you to take 4.2 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-GX1 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-GX1 combines the more traditional handling of the original GF1 model with more up-to-date features from the GF3 and G3 cameras and some brand new options like MP4 video support, Touch Tab, AF Flexible mode and the level gauge. Now let's take a look at its image quality on the next page...