Overall handling and operation
In terms of handling, the GF2 marks something of a sea-change in Panasonic's G-series. Whereas the GF1 went to extraordinary lengths to offer DSLR levels of external control, replicating almost of all of the G1's buttons and switches on a substantially smaller body, the GF2 simplifies things right down and relies substantially on the touch screen to replace those buttons and dials. Whether or not this will suit you is likely to depend very much on where you are coming from; we suspect the GF2 will delight users upgrading from compact cameras who are used to touch-screen control on their mobile devices, but perhaps be less appealing to experienced photographers looking for a smaller camera to complement their DSLR systems.
The GF2 is a camera that is likely to interest two rather different groups of photographers; relative newcomers upgrading from a compact camera for better image quality and more creative control, and experienced SLR users looking for a lighter-weight, more portable camera to complement their arsenal. But whereas the GF1 was very much tailored towards the needs to the latter group, the GF2 appears to be aimed much more towards the beginner.
Operation and handling - Auto modes
The GF2 has a plethora of auto modes to welcome new users, spearheaded by its all-purpose iA ('intelligent Auto') mode. This selects what it considers to be the most appropriate scene type from a number of options - portrait, scenery, macro, sunset and the like - and sets the camera up appropriately. Just as we've come to expect from Panasonic, this works very well indeed, and produces reliably good results straight out of the box.
Where the GF2 scores over its competitors (and previous Panasonic models too) is the way it allows the user to influence the results from iA mode to obtain the picture they have in mind. It's possible to specify your subject simply by touching the screen, control the degree of background blur using the new 'Defocus Control' function, and lighten or darken the image using exposure compensation - with the effects previewed live as you go along. All this makes the GF2 a really good choice for users who want easy creative control.
Operation and handling - PASM modes
When you switch the GF2 into the PASM modes, the fundamental shooting experience hasn't changed much at all relative to the GF1, despite the loss of many of the external controls. The basics of everyday operation - changing shutter speed, aperture, exposure compensation, ISO and the like - all behave in exactly the same way as before, using direct-access buttons and Panasonic's familiar click-dial. This makes the GF2 just as pleasant to use as most other cameras in its class, even if you ignore the touch-screen completely - indeed it still has more external control than the Sony NEXs, for example.
For more advanced users the GF2 is slightly limited in comparison to its predecessor, mainly due to the lack of its dedicated AEL and depth of field preview buttons. Either function can still be assigned to the Fn button, but for focus / exposure lock in particular it's nowhere near as well-positioned. Obviously you can't get access to both functions at the same time, either. However despite this there are few cameras that offer more control amongst its current competitors.
One function we think works really well on the GF2, though, is its touch-based focus point selection. The ability to quickly and intuitively designate your desired focus point simply by touching the screen is remarkably useful, and makes it trivial to achieve precise focus exactly where you want. We're not so enamoured of the touch shutter, though, which goes one step further and takes a picture whenever you press the screen - not only is it a recipe for camera shake, it's also the best way we've yet found of filling your card with inadvertently-taken shots.
Specific handling issues
We've not traditionally been big fans of touch-screen control - mainly because it's often been done fairly badly in the past. The GF2 is pretty positive in this respect - not only has the interface been designed with large, well-spaced buttons that minimize the chance of inadvertently setting the wrong option, it also allows you to choose which functions are controlled via the screen. You can decide not to use the Q.Menu (which would be to miss out, as it's well thought through, quick to use and usefully customizable), and can turn off the Defocus Control slider and the rear screen Touch Shutter release.
Of these it's only the touch shutter we'd be inclined to switch off - pressing the back of the camera is often enough to cause shaken pictures, particularly when working with long exposures. We found that using the screen to specify focus point and then using the shutter button to take the shot tends to work best. Although the screen isn't quite as clever as the multi-touch capable capacitive screens used in devices such as Apple's iPhone, the GF2's pressure-based screen has the advantage that it can still be operated with gloves on (as long as they're not too thick).
In fact our only real gripe would be that you can't remove the virtual 'DISP' button when you're trying to review images - we found it could be slightly distracting, particularly because it stands out on dark images (ironically, of course, there's no button you can press to change to a view without it).
Q.Menu / Fn setup choices
With a camera this unconventional in operation, but also this customizable, it makes sense to pay careful attention to how you set up the controls. The key decision to be taken in the regard is whether you're going to embrace the touchscreen or not; likewise your optimal settings will depend greatly on whether you predominantly use the rear screen or the EVF for composition. We think the camera works best if you use the touchscreen for those functions which don't have hard buttons, and customize the Q. Menu accordingly with your most-used settings.
You also have to choose what you're going to use the Q. Menu / Fn button for. Here it's worth bearing in mind that some more advanced functions are only available via the Fn button, most notably autofocus / autoexposure lock and depth of field / shutter speed effect preview (and obviously you can't assign both at once). We ended up using the 'Fn' button as AEL, and accessing the Q. Menu via touch.
If there's one improvement we'd love to see in a firmware update, it would be the ability to customize the iA button in the PASM modes, essentially making it Fn 2. It would then be extremely well-placed for use as AEL/AFL (certainly much better-placed than Fn currently is), and this would essentially replicate the 'missing' controls from the GF1 completely. Crucially (and unlike the G2) access to iAuto would still be available when desired, via the mode selection screen.
The GF2 is generally a responsive camera, whether you use the physical buttons or the touch-screen. So long as you turn off the 'Touch Guide' that brings up function descriptions with slightly annoying frequency, you'll rarely find yourself waiting for the GF2 to react. The focus isn't fast enough for sports work, but in most situations it's snappy enough to get the shot you want.
The touch-screen interface contributes well to this speed - whether it's via the Q.Menu or the options that appear when you press the direct-access buttons, it's faster to stab at an icon on the screen than scroll through to it using buttons or dials. The camera will slow down and lock-up if you try to shoot multiple RAW+JPEG files in a burst, however, and takes a while to acknowledge that you've asked it to stop shooting movies. In general, though, it's not a camera that makes you worry about its speed.
Continuous Shooting and Buffering
There are three continuous shooting modes, High, Medium and Low. The camera makes clear that live view is only available between shots on the slower two of these modes. In these tests we've used a Sandisk Extreme Pro 8GB 45MB/s UHS-1 SDHC card.
In Continuous High mode, when shooting JPEG the shooting rate varies depending on the focal length (presumably as a result of the differing distortion correction being conducted at different focal lengths). This makes it essentially impossible to specify a maximum shooting rate. In our tests we achieved between 3.0 and 3.3 frames per second, depending on focal length. At 3.0 fps the camera would happily continue shooting but at its very fastest rate would fill its buffer after around 30 shots.
The picture is thankfully somewhat clearer in Raw mode, where the camera will sustain 3fps for 5 frames, take one at a slightly slower rate, then continue to shoot at 0.7fps. Once at this slower rate it takes 9 seconds to completely clear the buffer, but the camera can shoot again in the meantime when buffer space becomes available.
In Continuous Medium mode, the camera varies between 2.3 and 2.5 frames per second in JPEG mode where it can keep shooting to the capacity of the card. In Raw mode it'll maintain 2.5 frames per second for 6 frames before dropping to 0.7 frames per second. Again there's a 9 second delay to clear the buffer.
Autofocus speed / accuracy
The GF2's autofocus is generally good. In single-AF mode its performance is consistent with that of an entry-level DSLR - you rarely notice yourself waiting. Of course the camera also offers something that DSLRs don't - the ability to position the AF point anywhere within the central 45% of the frame and do so by simply touching the screen. It also has a very effective face detection system, which works well in social situations. Focus accuracy is particularly impressive; like most CDAF cameras the GF2 is unerringly accurate with static subjects, and you can be confident that when it confirms the subject is in focus, it really means it.
The GF2's AF tracking mode is also pretty effective, merrily following subjects as they move around the screen. The autofocus itself isn't always able to keep up with the camera's understanding of where the subject has gone, meaning that there's sometimes a little shutter lag while it catches up. If you continue to track the subject the camera will tend to get the focus right, but this does mean you sometimes miss the perfect moment when working with fast-moving subjects. (Alternatively you can turn Focus Priority off, but this risks the image being out-of-focus).