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Live View

Like the Olympus E-P1 (and most modern compacts) the GF1 is a pure 'live view' camera - there's no optical viewfinder, and framing is done using the LCD screen (or the optional LVF1 viewfinder). The disadvantages associated with this are well documented; in very bright light the glare from the screen reflection can make it hard to see and in very low light the preview image can get a little noisy, and traditionally there's been a serious trade off in focus speed when using the sensor for AF.

But there are some advantages too; you get a lot more information overlaid on the preview image than any optical viewfinder can offer, and using the sensor for composition means that things like white balance, color effects and exposure can be assessed before you take the shot. The GF1 (like most compacts) also allows you to control just about every aspect of its operation using on-screen controls, meaning it's a lot easier to keep an eye on what's happening in the frame even when changing settings.

Crucially Panasonic has - as seen in our reviews of the G1 and GH1 - made a significant leap forward in main sensor autofocus (Contrast-Detect AF), bringing it a lot, lot closer to conventional SLR performance (see below).

Live view display modes

On the GF1 you can chose between a 'viewfinder' and 'LCD' type display, and you can set those independently for the LVF (if attached) and the rear LCD. Visually the only difference is that the viewfinder view has a black frame around the preview (and to be honest in some aspect ratios they look very similar), though the Q.Menu style does change.

The behavior in both screen modes is totally consistent - the command dial controls exposure compensation in most 'scene' modes, or one of the shooting parameters in the 'P, A, S and M' modes. In these modes, pressing the command dial toggles to control exposure compensation, the other shooting shooting parameter or program shift, depending on the mode. Accessing the other settings just requires pressing the Q.Menu button at which point the arrow keys or command dial allow navigation and a press of the 'set' button or command dial engages the setting.

Note that not all settings are available in all modes (Scene modes and Intelligent Auto modes have a reduced set of options).

LCD mode with detailed shooting information and histogram Viewfinder mode with detailed shooting information

Basic shooting information (only appears after half-press) Grid type I
Grid type II Movable Grid

One really neat feature is the ability to position the live histogram anywhere in the frame. The new exposure meter appears whenever you change shutter speed, aperture or AE compensation. It's a handy way to see the effect changes will have.

In A, S and P modes the exposure sliders move together (since the exposure is kept the same) When using exposure compensation you get a clear view what the camera is doing - and the effect it will have on the final shot.

Live view magnification

Just as in playback mode you can magnify live view by pressing the enlarge button (or back out again with reduce). While magnified you can use the multi-controller to move around the live image.

The live view can, naturally, be magnified.

Live view Depth-of-Field preview

One very useful feature is depth-of-field (DOF) preview. When the DOF preview button is pressed the camera stops the lens down to the selected aperture which provides you with an accurate representation of the depth-of-field of the final image. This system has advantages over the optical viewfinder in that it doesn't darken and can correctly represent the effects of large maximum apertures.

One totally unique (as far as we know) feature is the GF1's shutter speed effect preview (inherited from the G1 and GH1). This changes the refresh rate of the live view to mimic the shutter speed selected, producing a fairly accurate representation of how blurred subject movement will be in the final shot. This is exactly the kind of feature that shows how a truly 'ground up' digital camera system can offer significant advantages over the current crop of 'one foot in the past' digital SLRs.

Normal Live View DOF preview button held at F22
 
Press Display to preview the effect of the current shutter speed (here the spinning players appear as a total blur). This isn't a still; it's a live view with blurring.

Image options

The introduction of live view to SLRs has seen an increase in the prevalence of compact camera-like features and the ability to preview parameter changes on the image. The GF1, as a live-view-only system camera, has more than its fair share of toys and (inevitably, this being Panasonic) a plethora of scene and subject modes.

Pressing the Film Mode button brings up this menu from where you can choose one of six color and three black & white color modes. In each case you can also change the contrast, sharpness, saturation (color modes only) and noise reduction in 5 steps (from -2 to +2). There are two 'My Film' memory registers for creating and saving custom color modes. A final 'Multi Film' mode offers film mode 'bracketing' (up to three shots in your choice of film mode). My Color mode (accessed from the main mode dial) offers a quick way to experiment with three tonal parameters; Color (hue), Brightness and Saturation. In each case you get an 11 step (-5 to +5) range to play with.

Contrast Detect AF

Aside from the viewfinder, our biggest worry about the viability of all non-reflex interchangeable lens cameras is the reliance on sensor-based contrast detect autofocus. Our experiences so far - with the live view modes on current DSLRs - haven't been promising; all are painfully slow and most are close to unusable for any non-static subject.

When we visited Panasonic in Osaka last year to talk about the development of Micro Four Thirds we were assured that our concerns would be unfounded; this is a system designed from first principles on the basis of live view only operation, and a lot of work has gone into the design of new contrast detect focus algorithms. This, we were told, along with the extra processing power of the new Venus HD engine, would mean contrast detect AF that was at least as fast as current entry-level digital SLRs using the traditional phase detect AF.

The good news is that Panasonic's engineers have kept true to their word; the focus is not only astonishingly fast for a contrast detect system; it's easily as fast as any conventional SLR in this class. And unlike even most mid-range SLRs you get 23 area auto AF and the ability to place a single AF point almost anywhere in the frame - and that's before you throw in Panasonic's remarkable subject tracking AF and Face Detection. Panasonic seems to have overcome the main problem currently associated with using live view on an SLR (focus speed) and in so doing produced a truly usable live view-only camera.

Focus speed is determined by a combination of the performance of both camera and lens, and the GF1 is fastest when used with one of the two kit lenses Panasonic currently sells for its Micro Four Thirds system (the 14-45 and 14-140mm); with the 20mm F1.7 it's a touch slower (there's a lot more glass to move). That said, comparing the GF1 with the 20mm to the E-P1 with the 17mm pancake is like chalk and cheese; the Panasonic combo feels easily twice as fast. We'll look at this in more detail later in this review.

Focus modes

The GF1 offers four focus modes; Face Detection, AF Tracking, 23-area-focusing and 1-area focusing.

In Face Detection mode the camera will identify and lock onto a human face. In single area AF mode you can set both the position (using the down button then the arrow keys) and the size (using the dial) of the chosen area.
In 23-area AF the camera automatically selects the right area(s) of the scene from 23 points. Panasonic's unique AF Tracking mode starts with a central focus area.
Half press and the focus point will 'lock on' to the subject. Even if the subject - or the camera - moves, the focus point will continue to track it. It works well and is very fast.

Manual Focus

Manual focus is performed using the focus ring on the lens. If you've activated the MF assist function the image will be magnified to 5x or 10x as soon as you turn the focus ring. It's surprisingly usable.

Live view AF video clip

Below you will find a (very) short video clip showing the contrast detect autofocus in action. The clip starts a fraction of a second before the half-press activation of the focus system (with the focus preset to infinity) and ends after the 3 second record review has ended and the live view has returned. As you can see, the focus moves very quickly from infinity to its closest focus point.

Note: the video capture below is taken from the G1 review; the GF1's focus system is exactly the same.

Overall handling and operation comments

The beauty of the GF1 (and, for that matter, the Olympus E-P1 to some extent) is that you can pick it up, stick it into iAuto mode and just start shooting in much the same way you would with a compact (from a size and weight point of view it's not that far off a Canon G10), but it also lets you take control of the photographic functions easily too.

Inevitably there are aspects of the handling that suffer by comparison to a full sized SLR, but what's surprised me in the two months I've been using it is how well the GF1 works when used in a more hands-on manner, with logical, easy to reach controls and a design that - given the limitations imposed by the 'faux rangefinder' style - offers remarkably stable and comfortable handling. Although initially I was disappointed that the GF1 only has one dial (where the E-P1 has two), I soon discovered that the 'click and turn' dial did an equally good job.

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