Panasonic GF1 £669
11th Nov 2009 | 11:25
An intriguing compact/SLR hybrid, complete with gorgeous lens
Panasonic Lumix GF1: Overview
Asking photographers to fork out nearly £800 for a compact/SLR hybrid may seem a high-stakes gamble in our tough economic times.
So what's Panasonic's game plan? The idea behind the Lumix GF1 is to appeal to well-heeled compact fans looking for a nice upgrade that's still cheaper than a Leica, or SLR users seeking a more convenient back-up camera.
Panasonic's also gambling on the sheer likeability of the Lumix GF1, particularly if, like our review sample, it comes with the wonderful 20mm pancake lens.
With a maximum aperture of f/1.7, this fast, bright lens will be revelation to anyone who's only used cheaper, slower glass… We described the Lumix GF1 as a hybrid, but a more accurate description is mirrorless interchangeable lens camera – so it comes with a choice of lenses.
This is possible because it's based on the Micro Four Thirds system. In essence, this technology enables smaller and lighter camera bodies and lenses by simplifying the convoluted optical path required by a conventional SLR.
Instead, it incorporates an electronic viewfinder displaying live view (a real time representation of what the camera 'sees'). As such, the Lumix DMC-GF1 is a simplified version of the Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1, but lacks the high-end viewfinder and articulated screen.
As for its rivals, the Lumix DMC-GF1 is going up against the charmingly retro Olympus Pen EP-1 (the new model, the Pen EP-2, was announced on November 5th.)
Panasonic must be cursing Olympus, as the new Pen addresses most of its predecessor's failings, namely sluggish AF, lack of built-in flash and lack of electronic viewfinder – the same weaknesses that the Lumix DMC-GF1 is designed to take advantage of.
Panasonic is also facing a tough fight from the new Canon G11, a powerful, high-ISO muscle compact, hampered only by its bulk and conservative megapixel count.
The GF1 is by no means a cheap camera, but it depends on your choice of lens. Buy it with the gorgeous 20mm f/1.7 lens, and the best price we could find was £712; opt for the inferior (but more flexible) 14-45mm zoom lens, and the price falls to £589.
So a budget choice it ain't, particularly when you also have to pay extra to get the slot-in optional viewfinder.
Panasonic Lumix GF1: Features
As mentioned, the Lumix GF1 has a lot in common with its bigger brother the G1, including a 12 megapixel sensor based on Micro Four Thirds technology.
So this means that live view is activated all the time (you can hear it and feel it when you're walking along with the camera, which is slightly disconcerting). It also means that smaller, lighter lenses are available, such as the 20mm f/1.7 pancake lens.
This Leica-manufactured lens is only 23mm deep but really fast and bright –fast in the sense of having a fantastically wide maximum aperture. What this means is that it lets in lots of light, which makes hand-held shooting in low light a lot easier, and also makes it very easy to blur the background on your portraits.
Indeed, crank the aperture open to f/1.7 and it's hard NOT to blur the background, so reduced is the depth of field. Panasonic claims that the aspherical lens design keeps things simpler and sharper, and this was borne out in our tests (see later).
The physically shallower lens also means that the Lumix DMC-GF1 is nicely compact and portable, though as with the Canon G11, you'll struggle to squeeze it into your trouser pocket.
Flash and movie mode
The Lumix DMC-GF1 is more than just a slimmed-down version of the G1 though, as it offers powerful HD video recording with stereo sound recording.
While the HD recording maxes out at 720p on the GF1, it's a very useful extra, enabling you to record in either M-JPEG or the proprietary AVCHD format.
You simply press the red movie button on the top plate to activate HD video recording. It's all very seamless, and although the lack of advanced video and exposure controls may get frustrating on a camera costing this much money, you can't fault Panasonic when it comes to sheer ease of use. Onto the built-in flash.
This would have been a big feather in the Lumix's cap had not Olympus also squeezed one into the latest Pen, but still, it's great to have.
The flash is not particularly powerful, but can be incrementally adjusted from -2 to +2, and works well when used for fill flash effects in Aperture Priority mode. More noteworthy is the complicated looking pop-out flash mechanism.
At first glance it appears rather fragile and over-engineered, but is actually pretty sturdy, as is the camera as a whole.
Just remember that getting the flash back in requires you press it at just the right angle, so be stop and try again if you feel resistance!
On the subject of build quality, the Lumix DMC-GF1 is clearly built to last. While the camera lacks the retro charm of the Olympus Pen series, it's lovely to hold and is sturdy without being heavy. The buttons and dials really are beautifully engineered. There are a few design niggles, however.
If you add the optional electronic viewfinder and pop up the flash, this otherwise neat camera feels quite unwieldy and awkward to carry around. To be honest, we're not convinced it's worth getting the optional viewfinder, as the rear LCD is so large, bright and fun to use.
Our other gripe concerns the menus, which look and feel cheap compared to the Canon G11 or Olympus Pen. On a camera costing this much money, Panasonic should really push the boat out a bit and smarten up its navigation system.
The company redeems itself somewhat by offering a moveable histogram for checking exposure as you go along, and a nice bright grid to help with composition.
Panasonic Lumix GF1: Image quality
If you buy the Lumix DMC-GF1 with the 20mm pancake lens, you're bound to be really happy with the images you take.
This really is a fantastic lens, and far superior to the cheap and cheerful kit zooms you get with a budget SLR.
Some readers may wonder why we are raving about a fixed focal length lens, and there are times it gets frustrating that you can't zoom in, but such limitations actually force you to think before you shoot, and be more creative (and even though the lens is only 20mm, that's still equivalent to 40mm).
SAMPLE:The fast 20mm lens is a joy to use in challenging low light conditions and really gets your creative juices flowing
The lens is wonderful for portraits, as it's so fast and bright, and so easy to blur the background. At the same time, the sophisticated and flexible AF options means you can get the subject's face as sharp as you need it.
The Face Detection mode works really well, too, further narrowing the margin for error. You also really see the benefit when shooting hand-held in low light, so we found it great for creative close ups and macro work.
SAMPLE:Some photographers might like the rather weedy flash as it doesn't overpower the subject, particularly when used for fill flash effects in Aperture mode
The only drawback to this lens is that it isn't stabilised, so you need to be aware of this when shooting at slower shutter speeds.
There isn't any image stabilisation built in the camera, either; a tripod, or mini tripod such as the Joby Gorillapod, is therefore a sensible accessory for this camera.
On the subject of ISO, the low-light performance of the GF1 is impressive too. Stay below ISO 800 and noise isn't too much a problem at all, and even at higher levels, you can get perfectly acceptable shots so long as you don't mind removing a bit of noise in Photoshop.
SAMPLE:The iExposure tool claims to fine-tune the exposure settings for you, and did a good job here despite some underexposure – just watch out it doesn't ramp up the ISO and add noise
High ISO performance is not quite as good as the Canon G11, but it's a close run thing, as our test images reveal. The Lumix DMC-GF1's Micro Four Thirds sensor does a great job of resolving detail, and results are certainly as good as a budget SLR.
There are a few quirks, however. As mentioned, the flash is a bit weedy, and JPEGs are a bit bland-looking and washed out if you shoot them on default settings. After a while we selected the Dynamic or Vivid picture style, which does warm things up a bit (these effects can also be added to RAW images using the supplied software).
SAMPLE:Shoot in 16:9 mode and you can images are smartly resized to fit a widescreen TV
Switch to RAW, and you really reap the benefits of the high-performance sensor and optics. Masses of detail can be recovered and enhanced, and although the RAW conversion software isn't the best we've seen, it does the job.
Metering and AF are smart, quick and easy to adjust. A couple of widgets help with exposure too.
SAMPLE:The fast f/1.7 lens is a joy to use for portraits, making it easy to blur the background while keeping the subject sharp
There's a menu option called Intelligent Exposure, which claims to automatically work out the best exposure settings for you. It can be set to low, medium and high, and actually works well –just be aware though that on higher settings, it may raise the ISO, thereby increasing the risk of noise.
SAMPLE: The lens is fast and bright enough to work well for macro and close-up shots too
Still, better a sharp and well exposed shot with a bit of noise than a noise free shot with poor exposure… Another neat feature is Shutter Speed Simulation.
ISO TESTS: Noise increases steadily above ISO 800 but even at 3200 the results are passable
This gives a preview of the shutter speed through live view, and is another cool example of how Micro Four Thirds technology can be put to work to help less experienced photographers.
The Lumix DMC-GF1 offers subject tracking too and the ability to record images in 16:9 aspect ratio so they fit your widescreen TV.
Panasonic Lumix GF1: Verdict
Anyone buying this camera with the 20mm pancake lens will be delighted, especially if you've only used the rather compromised zooms on a cheaper compact or budget SLR.
It's fast, bright and sharp, and an irresistible invitation to rediscover the timeless joys of fixed focal-length photography.
There are many other things to like about this camera too, though it's not without it quirks. And of course, you have to weigh up the relatively price, especially if, as we recommend, you buy the Lumix DMC-GF1 with the pancake lens. There's a risk here that Panasonic might price itself out of the market…
The lens, the lens, the lens! Shoot at wider apertures than f/2.8 and the results are a joy to behold –go back to a camera with a narrower aperture range and it suddenly feels very restrictive.
We also like the stylish looks and quality build quality, the bright rear LCD and range of intelligent exposure controls. High iSO performance is fine, the metering and AF are smart and reliable and there are some genuinely useful extras, such as intelligent exposure widgets and shutter speed preview.
Meanwhile, being able to record HD at 720p in stereo sound is surely a good thing, especially as the movie mode is so easy to use.
While the pancake lens is great, the choice of other lenses is tiny compared to the Canon or Nikon SLR system.
The Lumix DMC-GF1 is a bit bland looking compared to the retro Olympus Pen and it suddenly gets bulky and awkward when you pop up the flash or add the optional electronic viewfinder.
While the pancake lens is great, it's not stabilised, and neither is the camera body. While there are more manual controls than you get with a compact, the options aren't as wide as you get with a similarly priced SLR.
The flash is weedy and JPEGs can look a bit washed out, too. Oh, and the menus look cheap and nasty compared to the competition.
We really like this camera, mainly because of the lens, superior sensor, intelligent design and handy exposure widgets.
Low light performance is good too. It might not be as chunky as the PowerShot G11 or as chic as the Olympus Pen, but it's definitely got the X factor. At the end of the day, this is quite a specialist camera considering the unique lens and relatively high price, so we recognise it's not going to appeal to everyone.
The price could certainly deter compact owners looking for a fairly cheap upgrade, or SLR owners who are reluctant to spend almost as much on a backup camera as they did on their main model. If you can afford it with the pancake lens though, the Lumix DMC-GF1 won't disappoint.
It'll rekindle your love of photography, and if that's not the hallmark of a fine camera, we don't know what is.