It may lack the retro slick design of its main competitor, the Olympus E-P1, but Panasonic gets it almost pitch perfect with the Lumix DMC-GF1, a jacket-pocket-size interchangeable-lens model with the feel and features that draw people to enthusiast compacts like the Canon PowerShot G11. While it’s still not quite suited for action shooting or serious low-light photography, those weaknesses are a lot more forgivable at the GF1′s $900-or-so price than the GH1′s $1,500 level. However, if you’re looking for a kids’n’pets-friendly speed improvement over a point-and-shoot, the lack of an optical viewfinder for continuous shooting is still the main weakness versus a similarly priced dSLR.
I tested the GF1 with both the 20mm and 14-45mm lenses, but unfortunately was unable to get an optional viewfinder for evaluation; the viewfinder connects above the LCD and sits in the hot shoe, which precludes using a hot-shoe flash with it. In general, the Micro Four Thirds lenses used by Panasonic and Olympus’ mirrorless, interchangeable-lens cameras tend to be pricey, and there aren’t a lot of them yet. You also need to check the specs on the lenses before you buy; Panasonic relies on optical image stabilization, while Olympus uses sensor shift, something to keep in mind if you’re mixing and matching systems. Even then, the 20mm Panasonic lens lacks optical image stabilization–some might argue that you don’t need it for such a short focal length–and doesn’t support continuous autofocus, which you might want for movie capture. (Check out Panasonic’s table of lens compatibility for more information.) But both lenses are relatively sharp and comfortable for manual focus.
Sturdily built with a shallow, but ultimately sufficiently large, grip, everything about the GF1′s design seems to address the needs of both enthusiasts and people stepping up from point-and-shoots. It offers a lot of features, but as long as you’re not a newbie you should find all the controls pretty easy to understand and find, without too much menu diving. For instance, the switch for burst shooting, bracketing, and self-timer is right around the mode dial, more easily found and accessed than on most models.
Despite a lot of similarities, Panasonic uses a different interface for the GF1 than for the GH1, though the goal of conveying the relationship between aperture and shutter speed as you change the settings remains.
The camera also offers a lot of flexibility. Unsurprisingly, the GF1 shares much in common with the G1 and GH1, including the unusual seven-frame bracketing option (although with the same drawback of no full stop setting). Though much of the innards are similar to the GH1, there are some differences in behavior. For instance, since they use different sensors, when you select the different aspect ratio options in the GF1 it crops the image instead of preserving the full resolution as the GH1 does. Like the ZS3, the GF1 also offers face recognition. You can register up to six faces in the camera memory with names and birthdays, priority (for AF and exposure), and a custom focus icon. During playback, the person’s name appears. However, you can’t use this information to search during playback, and it doesn’t seem to appear anywhere in the EXIF data for the photo.
The two custom settings slots on the mode dial hold two sets each. Though not as sophisticated as the GH1′s Creative Movie mode, the GF1′s Motion Picture program mode allows you to adjust exposure compensation and aperture. And a (poorly named) Peripheral Defocus scene mode functions as a kind of wide-aperture-priority mode for obtaining shallow-depth-of-field photos. Panasonic is pretty good about giving you direct access to the most frequently used shooting controls. The navigation buttons bring up white balance (including two manual slots and color temperature), ISO sensitivity, AF mode (face detection, tracking, 23 area, or single area), and a function button to which you can assign film mode, aspect ratio, quality, metering, intelligent exposure, and a few display options. The Q.Menu button pulls up the rest of the important settings: flash options, color/film modes (standard, dynamic, nature, smooth, nostalgic, vibrant, plus black-and-white versions of standard dynamic and smooth), stabilizer options (active, on prefocus, and y-axis only) used in conjunction with an optically stabilized lens, still- and video-recording quality, LCD brightness options, and duplications of some of the direct-access control options. If you don’t want to use the full onscreen display, you can also set the camera to display the settings around the edges of the screen and cycle around them that way.
You can also preview changes to settings such as aperture and shutter speed, to gauge the effects in advance; though it’s somewhat hard to see depth-of-field changes, and you can only get a general sense of the shutter speed effect because of the LCD refresh, the capability to preview exposure may be invaluable for some. The implementation on the GF1 is better than on the GH1, since it doesn’t require jumping into a special mode. My only gripe with the design is the rather small, hard-to-feel movie record button.
For video, you can set encoder type (AVCHD or Motion JPEG MOV files), quality (60fps 720p at three different bit rate choices, and various lower resolution options), metering, four levels of Intelligent Exposure, and four levels of wind filtering. While AVCHD is a more efficient encoder than Motion JPEG and you can record up to the capacity of the card, the AVCHD MTS files need to be transcoded before you can post them online or send them around to friends. (You can find a complete description of the camera’s features and operation by downloading a PDF manual.)
The GF1 performs similarly to the G1, and markedly better than the E-P1. Its autofocus system operates quickly, especially compared with the Live Mode AF of digital SLRs; unlike those models, it supports continuous AF during movie capture and is very responsive. It powers up and shoots in a zippy 0.8 second. In bright light, the camera snaps a photo in 0.5 second; in low-contrast light, it takes 0.6 second. It typically takes about 0.7 second to shoot two consecutive images, with just over half a second added for flash recycling time. While its 2.8 frames per second continuous-shooting rate is competitive for its class, the lack of an optical viewfinder makes keeping active subjects in frame the real burst shooting problem, not frame rate or AF tracking. The autofocus operates just a tad slower than I’d like during movie capture, but it’s adequate.
Though it’s not articulated like that of the G1 and GH1, the LCD is quite nice: bright, large, and viewable in bright sunlight. Panasonic CIPA rates the battery at about 350 shots, which is a bit low, but in practice that seems a conservative estimate. And the rating of more than 2.5 hours of video shooting (it depends upon the lens) is better than many camcorders.
The GF1 delivers photo quality on par or slightly better than the G1–it improves on the G1′s exposure and color accuracy–and with entry-level dSLRs, and I’d rank them as two of Panasonic’s best digital cameras to date in this respect. Depending upon subject matter and lighting, the GF1′s ISO 1,600 photos look acceptable printed as large as 12×16; more generally, color noise appears in JPEGs at ISO 400, with detail smearing becoming a problem by ISO 800. However, overall color consistency remains good as you increase sensitivity. You can also generally get better noise performance by shooting raw, however, and adjusting the settings yourself.
My one complaint is that occasionally scene elements in depth-of-field limbo–not quite out of focus but not quite in–had a tendency to look oddly digital. Not crunchy or oversharpened, just…digital. Nonetheless, overall I was very pleased with the GF1′s photos. I’m less enthused about the camera’s movie quality. It’s not bad at best quality, saturated and relatively sharp with no unusual artifacts, but the 720p video looks soft when scaled up for a large display or TV.
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1 is the first camera to truly deliver on the benefit of a mirrorless system: interchangeable lenses in a compact design without sacrificing features, speed, or photo quality at a competitive price. Its one drawback is the inherent inappropriateness of an LCD/EVF-based viewfinder system for shooting action. But if you aspire to something more sophisticated than a point-and-shoot and will be shooting subjects slower moving than toddling kids and running pets–and it’s still better than the typical snapshot camera for that–I recommend the GF1.