Conclusion - Pros
- JPEG output shows impressive detail at base ISO, superb resolution (especially in raw files)
- Natural and appealing tones out of the box
- Good balance between noise reduction and detail retention - usable images up to ISO 1600
- Very snappy performance throughout
- Very quick write speeds
- Good ergonomics all around, excellent build quality, nice handling
- Large number of external controls including a very useful 'push-and-turn' dial
- Very useful status panel and quick menu allow direct access to many important settings
- Intuitively structured menu system
- Highly customizable - up to three custom modes and many user-definable options
- Very compact dimensions of body and lenses for an interchangeable lens camera system
- Tilting high-quality screen, highest resolution in this class of camera
- Best electronic viewfinder we've seen so far (and far bigger than any comparable conventional DSLR)
- Very flexible AF-system with movable AF-area and very effective AF tracking
- Fastest contrast detect AF to date (with kit lenses), on par with entry-level DSLRs
- Very usable manual focus mode
- Movable live-histogram
- Selectable aspect-ratio
- Very effective image stabilization on kit lenses
- Fully fledged RAW converter (Silkypix) included in the package
- HDMI-video output
- Shutter-speed simulation
Conclusion - Cons
- Currently fairly limited choice of lenses and accessories
- Optional adapter required for standard Four Thirds lenses, most won't allow autofocus (those that will focus do so noticeably slower than the kit lenses)
- Steep tone curve (JPEG) and approximately 0.5 EV less dynamic range in the highlights than the competition can lead to clipping
- No video recording
- Fairly low powered flash (but good flash metering)
- Electronic viewfinder difficult to use in low light (very noisy image and greatly reduced refresh rate)
- Relatively loud shutter noise (for a non-DSLR)
- Exposed sensor requires care when changing lenses
- Fairly unreliable auto white balance (in artificial light) and no fluorescent white balance preset
- Battery life worse than most entry-level DSLRs (330 CIPA standard)
- Quoted maximum continuous speed (3 fps) only possible to achieve in JPEG mode, with image review turned off, and the lens aperture set wide open
- Image parameters don't offer a wide enough variation range
You might not think it as you watch as the endless stream of new digital camera models flowing by, but true innovations - never mind revolutions - are pretty rare in the photographic industry. The Single Lens Reflex (SLR) camera is a case in point; the fundamental design has remained the same for almost 60 years, adapting with ease to the digital era (the biggest revolution in imaging since the Box Brownie), getting gradually more sophisticated as technology advanced. Sitting at the heart of every SLR ever made* is a hinged mirror that directs the image formed by the lens into the eyepiece and flips out of the way when you press the shutter to allow that same lens to be used to focus the image onto the film/sensor. This simple design has survived so long because it works, it's relatively inexpensive and because in truth there wasn't really any other way to make a relatively small camera with an eye-level through-the-lens viewfinder (* yes, I know, one or two had fixed mirrors)
It was only a matter of time before someone made a camera that replaced the SLR's mirror with an electronic viewfinder showing a live video preview fed directly from the imaging sensor (as happens with all non-SLR digital cameras), and perhaps unsurprising that it was Panasonic, a company relatively new to the market, and one without the baggage of a legacy system to support, that was the first to introduce it.
So is the G1, the world's first 'non reflex SLR' (no one seems to agree on what to call this new breed of system camera), as revolutionary as the introduction of autofocus and programmed auto exposure (both over 20 years old now). More importantly - does it actually represent a step forward? At the moment the jury is still out.
What is clear is that there is a huge demand for a camera that combines the features and benefits of a high end digital compact with the quality, versatility and speed of a digital SLR, and the announcement of the Micro Four Thirds system was greeted with great excitement in the photographic community. The G1, on the other hand, got a slightly more muted response, mainly because it seems to be trying just a little too hard not to be too revolutionary.
Panasonic's intentions for the G1 have been clearly stated; it's designed to appeal to the less experienced user put off buying a digital SLR because of bulk, perceived complexity, and price. It arguably delivers on the first, and since a couple of price drops it's getting closer to delivering on the third, with a price that puts it on a par with its direct competitors, though way beyond the equivalent non-SLR. From a specification (and generally from a performance) point of view however, the G1 is actually pretty advanced, and - whatever Panasonic says about the intended user - its designers and engineers have produced a camera that has an awful lot to appeal to the more serious photographer and one that will seem pretty daunting to anyone less experienced; at least until they actually use it.
In use the G1 does indeed offer the ease of use of a compact camera - especially if you stick it on fully automatic and ignore the wealth of options and pages of menus. If you've been using a Panasonic FZ series - or any advanced compact camera - you'll feel right at home with the G1. There's a good selection of external controls as well as Panasonic's useful on-screen quick menu, giving the best of two worlds combined. There isn't really any halfway important shooting setting that you can't alter within two button presses at most and the menu structure is fairly intuitive as well which makes the G1 easy to use even for photographers who are new to the brand.
While the user interface is equally well suited to photographers coming from SLRs and former compact users, the viewfinder is more of a double-edged affair. It's significantly larger than the optical viewfinders of other cropped sensor cameras and has a higher resolution than any other electronic viewfinder on a digital camera we've seen before. In good light it is therefore a very good substitute for an optical viewfinder but things become more difficult in dim conditions.
In very low light the viewfinder image gets so noisy, jerky and dark that it's almost impossible to use. Of course the electronic viewfinder does have some benefits, allowing the G1 to display considerably more information than any optical finder ever could, and to preview the effects of exposure settings, white balance and other parameters, and to magnify the preview for more precise manual focusing.
Image quality was, generally, a very pleasant surprise. The G1 uses a Four Thirds sensor and although it's a new sensor that's not been used previously in another Four Thirds camera, we would have expected at least a comparable image quality to the current Olympus DSLRs. And the G1 certainly did not disappoint us - far from it. In good light it produces consistently high image quality out of the box, there's not really a need to play with any of the parameters. At the camera's standard JPEG settings G1 images show natural tones and colors and hardly any artifacts. Image detail is impressive indeed. The G1 pulls visibly more detail out of a scene than the conventional Four Thirds DSLRs that we have tested before and is on par with the very best in the entry level DSLR bracket such as the Canon 450D. Shooting in RAW will get you even more detail and generally clean output.
At higher sensitivities things get naturally a bit more difficult but Panasonic's well balanced noise reduction does a pretty good job. In low light the G1 cannot quite keep up with the very best entry-level DSLRs but performs solidly and produces images that show an appealing balance between noise reduction and detail retention, only the very highest sensitivity setting should probably be reserved for emergency occasions.
The G1 is certainly not without problems. One of the biggest is the limited lens support: there are currently two dedicated zooms, neither of which is that fast (aperture wise) and an adaptor for standard four thirds lenses, most of which don't autofocus (and are ridiculously out of proportion to the tiny body). Another is price, though we don't consider the G1 to be overpriced - it's just relatively expensive when compared to the rest of the market. Less easy to forgive is the performance of the electronic viewfinder in low light - if you do a lot of low light shooting you'll be yearning for a return to simplicity and clarity of an optical viewfinder and a good old fashioned mirror.
Another point worth mentioning is the lack of a video recording capability. There are no apparent technical reasons for leaving out something you get in a fifty buck point and shoot compact, and we've no doubt it will hurt the G1's sales; particularly since Panasonic has already shown prototypes of a 'G1 HD' version of the camera that does offer video capture.
The G1 is a slightly curious camera; it is technically innovative but it's far from revolutionary; it simply replaces one means of getting the image into the viewfinder for another one, and the result brings some benefits (it's small, has some clever features and is darn cute) but also some disadvantages. It certainly doesn't reinvent the digital SLR, because it's designed to look, handle, operate and feel like one, and it's still far from pocketable. But it's an impressive debut for a system we think has huge potential, and everyone here that used it, without exception, fell for its undeniable charms.
If you can live with its limitations the G1 is an appealing and viable DLSR alternative that's a lot of fun to use and is capable of superb results. We can't wait to see what the future holds for the Micro Four Thirds system when a slightly less conservative approach to camera design is applied.
Original Rating (January 2009): Highly Recommended
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