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Panasonic GF1 vs Olympus E-P1 'real world' comparison

We've already looked at the feature and design differences between the GF1 and its only direct competitor, the Olympus E-P1, and it would seem to be fairly obvious that the Panasonic wins - by a narrow margin - on points, thanks to its better focusing, better screen and built-in flash. Having spent a considerable amount of time comparing the cameras it's clear that when it comes to image quality things are nowhere near so clear cut. We spent a day shooting hundreds of side by side frames with each camera (using the 14-42mm and 14-45mm kit lenses) using auto white balance and aperture priority, but essentially leaving most of the decisions to the cameras.

At a pixel level (as seen in our studio comparisons) the E-P1's JPEG output is slightly better, but how much difference the slightly more accomplished processing will make at normal viewing magnifications is debatable. Certainly if you download any of the JPEG files on this page you'll need to look very closely to see any resolution advantage either way. What you can see - even in a thumbnail - is the two cameras' very different tonal rendition, particularly in the way blue skies and green foliage are recreated in the final JPEG.

Olympus fans have long raved about 'Olympus color', and it's not hard to see why; the default settings produce pleasing and well optimized results that require little - if any - post processing. There's no secret formula to the Olympus look: it's a fairly simple combination of punchy contrast and slightly higher than average saturation of blues and greens, combined with accurate white balance and a metering system that isn't frightened of increasing exposure to get bright pictures. The result is almost always better than the GF1, though the punchy color and contrast and 'sailing close to the wind' metering can lead to blown highlights and day-glo colors if it gets things even slightly wrong.

Our biggest criticism of the GF1's output is that it never quite gets blue skies right; they often look a little pinkish. It's only fractionally different to the E-P1 (if you measure it), but it looks terrible by comparison. Whether it's white balance or color mapping I'm not sure, but next to the E-P1's version it looks unimpressive. Since I post process virtually every shot I take, the slightly flat appearance of the GF1 shot isn't a problem (it's far easier to increase brightness and contrast than to reduce it), but fixing colors is something I'd rather not be doing on shots taken in broad daylight. Note that it's blues and greens that the GF1 tends to fall down on; reds (and other warm tones) are very punchy (in fact, as with most Pansonics, the default color settings often produce over-saturated reds and magentas).

Shooting raw removes any significant difference between the GF1 and the E-P1, and it's easy to get (almost) exactly the same color with little effort, and (with most raw converters) you'll get visibly more resolution out of the GF1 than the E-P1 too. Incidentally you can process GF1 JPEGs so the skies look like Olympus JPEGs, but it's fiddly (increase blue and green saturation, auto levels, selectively shift the hue of the blues a little).

Panasonic GF1 Camera JPEG
14-45mm kit lens (@14mm)
Olympus E-P1 Camera JPEG
14-42mm kit lens (@14mm)
Panasonic GF1 Processed raw file Olympus E-P1 Processed raw file

There are a couple of areas - arguably more important than color (which can at least be fixed) where the GF1 outperforms the E-P1. First is focus, which as well as being faster, is slightly more reliable on the GF1. The second is exposure, which the E-P1 - if left to its own devices - gets wrong more often than the Panasonic, especially when shooting 'difficult' subjects, with overexposure (and blown highlights) not unusual. Panasonic's metering is actually very reliable and tends to take a slightly more conservative approach, favoring underexposure where the E-P1 is more likely to overshoot (which is nigh on impossible to fix).

Panasonic GF1 Camera JPEG Olympus E-P1 Camera JPEG

Foliage also tends to look brighter - and better - in E-P1 JPEGs (greens are green, and are pleasantly saturated), though again you can shoot raw to neutralize the differences. The example below shows the difference in color and contrast and the GF1's slightly lower exposure (which shows less clipping), though a look at the 100% crop shows how little 'real world' difference there is between these two cameras shot with their respective kit lenses.

Panasonic GF1 Camera JPEG Olympus E-P1 Camera JPEG
14-45mm kit lens (@45mm) 14-42mm kit lens (@42mm)
100% crops 100% crops

So then, although there are undeniable differences between results produced by the GF1 and E-P1 in JPEG mode, these differences are mostly relatively small, and can further narrowed by careful use of manual overrides in-camera and are almost completely removed when shooting raw (just watch the E-P1's metering in bright conditions).

In summary

  • The E-P1 produces better JPEGs with brighter (yet more realistic) colors, punchier contrast and cleaner pixel-level detail.
  • Although the E-P1 has marginally more highlight dynamic range (at ISO 200) than the GF1, its metering tends to skate dangerously close to over exposure, so - without manual intervention - you get more blown highlights with the Olympus. The GF1's metering is definitely more reliable.
  • The GF1's focus is faster and a touch more reliable than the E-P1 (which occasionally gets it completely wrong).
  • Despite being nominally longer (45mm vs 42mm), at short focus distances the Panasonic kit zoom is visibly wider at the tele end than the Olympus.
  • Likewise, at the wide end the Olympus is slightly wider (we suspect this is down to Panasonic's stronger distortion correction, at least in part).
  • In our lens tests both Panasonic kit lenses is measurably better than the Olympus equivalents, and the in-camera removal of CA is a bonus. How much of this you seen in most shots is debatable.
  • Although covered elsewhere it's worth repeating here that the E-P1 does slightly better at very high ISO settings (1600+) than the GF1.
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