Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1
Category: Mid Range Interchangeable Lens Camera / DSLR
Conclusion - Pros
- Superb resolution, excellent overall image quality up to ISO 1600
- Stunning raw output
- Reliable exposure and focus and generally reliable white balance
- Excellent build quality & great screen
- Surprisingly good handling, fun and easy to use
- Very compact design
- Intuitive user-interface that combines compact and DSLR features
- Large number of external controls including a very useful 'push-and-turn' dial
- Fast contrast detect Auto Focus (on par with entry level DSLRs)
- Lots of cool features (subject tracking, shutter speed simulation, movable live-histogram)
- Built-in flash and optional viewfinder
- iAuto mode works well - novice users should get decent results in 'point and shoot' mode
- HD video mode (though audio features pretty basic)
- Choice of two excellent kit lenses (zoom and pancake)
- Highly customizable - custom modes and many user-definable options and parameters
- Lens stabilization system very effective (but not all lenses have it)
- Comprehensive software package included
Conclusion - Cons
- Dynamic range and high ISO output not quite as good as best in class (including Olympus E-P1)
- JPEG output nowhere near as good as it could be - shoot raw for best results
- Default settings don't produce particularly appealing (JPEG) color
- Flash is very weak
- No in-body IS (and 20mm pancake not stabilized)
- Autofocus doesn't work with all legacy Four Thirds lenses
- Still a very limited range of dedicated lenses
- Orientation sensor uses lens IS system (so no automatic rotation of images shot with the 20mm or any other lens that doesn't have an IS module)
- Optional viewfinder is expensive (and could be smaller)
- Shutter lag long compared to an SLR (but good compared to a compact)
Reviewing cameras day in day out (in my case for well over a decade) whilst retaining at least some of the love of photography that got us here in the first place can be quite a challenge, and a good measure of how much we've engaged with - enjoyed - a particular model is the number of gallery shots we've taken with it in the month or so that each review takes.
In the case of the GF1 I think I set a new personal record, shooting well over 3000 pictures, way above the 800-1200 or so we'd normally consider to be more than enough to get under the skin of a camera. I'm not saying they were all winning shots, just that the GF1 is a camera that simply cries out to be used and, for this occasionally jaded user at least, puts the fun back into photography. Another clue as to how much we liked the GF1 is that people in the office have actually been shelling out their own money to buy them, something almost unheard of in an office with cupboards full of all the latest cameras.
To be honest, with the kit zoom attached the GF1 makes little sense (the Olympus collapsible lens is a lot more in keeping with the camera body size); it's only a little more pocketable than the G1 (which - movies aside - is a considerably more practical camera). But once you attach the wonderful 20mm F1.7 pancake it becomes something special; an unobtrusive creative tool that you can carry anywhere, and one that's capable of superb photographic results.
When I started using the GF1 I didn't think I'd use the 20mm F1.7 that much (too many years using zooms), but once attached I rarely took it off. The 40mm equivalent focal length is both restrictive and yet surprisingly liberating from a creative point of view, and took me back to my earliest days of photography using a Pentax Spotmatic with a single 50mm lens. And you can stick it on a wrist strap and basically carry it with you wherever you go.
Inevitably the GF1 will be compared to the Olympus E-P1 (which, it has to be said, has much the same appeal), and, as covered in this review, there's no clear winner. The E-P1 has undeniably cute retro styling, overall has the edge in JPEG image quality, offers in-body stabilization and can autofocus pretty much any Four Thirds lens (albeit very slowly). But for us the GF1's more reliable metering and AF systems, superb lens quality, focus speed, optional electronic viewfinder and built-in flash swing it. User interface and handling is a pretty personal thing; we preferred elements of the Olympus system (the control panel, for one), but we found the GF1 more logical (and far less prone to accidental settings changes - the curse of all small-bodied cameras).
JPEG image quality is good, though I think most users would prefer the Olympus E-P1's punchier output and appealing colors. By comparison the GF1 (at its default settings) produces relatively muted and subtle output that's well suited to post processing but possibly lacks the immediate appeal of most entry-level SLRs (switching to Dynamic mode soon fixes that). At a pixel level it's good, but not great, and you'll need to switch to raw to really appreciate what the GF1 is capable of (and to see just how good the lenses and sensor are). High ISO (1600+) performance isn't quite as good as the best APS-C SLRs (or even the Olympus E-P1), but it's not far off, and is mostly down to poor JPEG processing.
Who's it for?
As the heart of an extensive interchangeable lens kit the GF1 has a hard time competing with a true SLR or, for that matter, the G1 or (if you want video and have deep pockets) the GH1. It makes little sense when used with long zooms, and the superb viewfinder and flip out screen sported by its siblings make them considerably more versatile shooting tools. But as a second camera - be it as part of an existing Four Thirds/Micro Four Thirds system or as a compliment to a larger APS-C kit - it is incredibly easy to recommend - especially with the 20mm lens.
Crucially, although you get the best results from the GF1 by shooting raw (and you'll need to fiddle with a few parameters to get the most appealing JPEGs), it's a lot, lot easier for novice users to get good pictures out of it than the E-P1. The iAuto mode rarely gets much wrong, with very reliable metering and fast, accurate focus, and its perfectly possible to just point and shoot, if that's all you want from a camera. It might only look like a few milliseconds, but the difference between the autofocus on the GF1 and the Olympus E-P1 feels like night and day when you're trying to get a shot; it's the difference between a transparent user experience and a frustrating one.
The market for a camera like the GF1 falls into three broad groups; those wanting a better quality alternative to a high end compact (such as the Canon G10), those wanting a more portable alternative to an entry-level SLR and those bitten so hard by the camera bug that they want something to fill the gap between their compact and SLR systems. Of the three it's the latter who will be most satisfied by the GF1, since they understand completely the compromises faced by anyone in the other two groups; the GF1 is larger and more expensive than any compact, and it can't match the speed or feature set of a similarly-priced SLR.
As mentioned above, with the excellent low-profile 20mm F1.7 lens attached the GF1 becomes a sublime thing that (if you can live without a zoom) genuinely fills the yawning gap twixt the worlds of compact cameras and SLRs. It's fast, fun, capable of stunning results in raw mode (and competitive results in JPEG mode), offers decent HD movie capture, and has enough features to satisfy even the most enthusiastic tweaker.
The camera hadn't left my side since I first picked it up until a recent flying visit to China with a heavy SLR kit, when I found myself missing the simple pleasure of the GF1 and pancake combination. We've said it before and we'll say it again; the GF1 (and Olympus E-P1) are the perfect manifestation of the smaller cameras cameras promised by Four Thirds since its inception, and Micro Four Thirds is one of the most exciting things to happen to this market for years.
Of course it's by no means perfect; the size and minimalist design inevitably impact somewhat on handling compared to an SLR (it really doesn't suit long lenses), Panasonic needs to work on its JPEG processing, and the electronic viewfinder, though welcome, is something of a compromise. I missed the G1/GH1's ability to display a status panel whilst using the viewfinder, and the automatic switching between viewfinder and screen, and I struggled to justify the expense (if you really want a viewfinder, buy a G1). I also wish the GF1 had a quieter shutter (like the E-P1 it clunks fairly loudly for such a small camera).
Overall though - and I guess you probably already know this - I really loved the GF1, and will find it very hard to return it when this review is finished, meaning that I may have to wipe the dust and cobwebs off my wallet and actually hand over my own hard earned cash for one. The Olympus E-P1 now has some very, very strong competition in the form of possibly the most engaging and enjoyable camera on the market today. A compromise, for sure, but a surprisingly happy one.
Ergonomics & handling
Metering & focus accuracy
Image quality (raw)
Image quality (jpeg)
Low light / high ISO performance
Viewfinder / screen rating
Movie / video mode
'Carry anywhere' camera for SLR users wanting something pocketable with excellent image quality
Not so good for
The compact design means inevitable compromises when compared to a 'full size' SLR, but the GF1 gets so much right that it's a real winner in our eyes. Great image quality, a well-rounded feature set and surprisingly zippy performance put it a little ahead of the Olympus E-P1, and much more versatile.
Original Rating (October 2009): Highly Recommended
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