Using the Panasonic GF3/Handling

As you'd expect with a smaller camera body, the GF3 can become a bit awkward in terms of weight and balance when you zoom out to the tele end of a lens like the Lumix G Vario HD 14-140mm F4-5.8 OIS. To be fair, the majority of users presumably will be sporting either of the available kit lenses - the Lumix G 14mm F2.5 ASPH or Lumix G Vario 14-42mm F3.5-5.6 ASPH OIS. Handling with either of these lenses attached is very good, and the GF3 is a comfortable camera to hold even without a strap.

Panasonic has moved aggressively to get the GF3's size and weight as close to compact camera territory as possible. The irony, of course, is that as soon as you mount the sort of kit zoom that most of the target audience will want to us, the camera becomes a lot less compact.

It's easy enough to get a good grip on the GF3, despite the small size. However, the loss of the rear thumb-positioned dial mean that you'll have to drop out of the shooting hand grip every time you want to change any settings.
The top plate of the camera has been rearranged - and intelligently so. Unlike the GF2, the iA button, which gives quick access to the camera's auto mode, has been moved out from under your shooting finger. This leaves it easily accessible but harder to press accidentally.

In terms of operational control, the GF3 behaves similarly to the GF2. The significant differences in handling revolve around the removal of the rear thumb dial, and the lack of provision for a viewfinder.

In terms of rear controls, this is the extent of them. A playback button, 4-way controller, and customizable quick menu/Fn button.

The 'traditional' G-series thumb dial has been replaced in the GF3 by a control dial integrated with the rear 4-way controller. Whether or not you like this change (or even notice it) depends on your physiognomy as much as anything else, but we find the 'old' thumb dial more comfortable to use. In an ideal world, we'd like to see two dials on the rear of the GF3, working in concert with one another but we're not holding our breath on that one.

Specific handling issues

On a camera with as few external controls as the GF3, the choice of which setting to assign to the Fn button becomes rather important. More so, because in enabling the function button you lose the ability to call up the Q.Menu except via the touchscreen. Back in our GF2 review, we wished for an option to use the iA button as a Fn2 button in the PASM modes. Having seen the benefits of two Fn buttons in the Panasonic Lumix DMC-G3, we are still keen on having this option in a GF-series model.

In the GF2 (above), the built-in flash was offset to the left of the lens, potentially reducing the occurrence of red-eye... while the GF3's flash sits directly above the center of the lens. GF3 users do not have the option of adding an external flash unit.

The GF3 does away with the flash hot shoe while simultaneously moving the built-in flash directly over the center of the lens mount. In combination, these two moves have particular ramifications even for casual snapshots. We've already mentioned the GF3's vulnerability to lens barrel shadow in wideangle flash shots, but more fundamentally, not having the option of adding an external flash is potentially very limiting in situations where the puny built-in unit simply doesn't have enough power to ensure accurate exposure.

The positioning of the built-in flash causes problems, but so, potentially, does the positioning of the GF3's tripod socket. Users of the kit zoom won't care, but anyone wishing to use Panasonic's 45-200mm or 14-140mm lenses will be disappointed to find that the barrels of both extend deeper than the camera's baseplate. With the GF3 set up securely on a tripod, you cannot mount either of these lenses without first removing the camera from the tripod. This design flaw obviously prevents you from positioning the camera flush with the tripod head/quick-release plate when using either lens.


Overall Performance

In general terms, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3 is a reasonably quick performer. When accessing controls via the touchscreen, integrated 4-way dial or a combination of both, menus and settings are quite responsive. From power-on to first exposure takes around 0.8 seconds, and apart from buffer overruns in raw-enabled continuous shooting modes, we found the camera ready to shoot when we were.

The touchscreen interface allows you to make between-shot adjustments quickly and easily, contributing to an overall feeling of responsiveness when using the GF3. In one minor annoyance, inherited from the GF2, when the camera is capturing video, the GF3 still pauses for an unnervingly long time after you press the record button (to stop capture) before it indicates that recording has indeed ceased.

Continuous Shooting and Buffering

The GF3 has three burst modes, H, M, and L. In H mode the GF3 improves upon the shooting speed of the GF2, clocking in at 3.8 fps for JPEG and raw-only capture. In M mode the GF3 has a 3 fps shooting rate across all image quality modes. It bears mention that live view is disabled in H mode, so the gain of almost one additional frame per second is tempered by the fact that you cannot see what the camera is actually capturing, only the image that it has just recorded. Although this generally isn't a problem when shooting static subjects, the lack of live view greatly reduces your ability for instance, to pan accurately while following a subject. Also note that if you shoot in raw+JPEG mode, the frames rates of both H and M mode are virtually identical. When shooting in JPEG-only mode, the GF3 can fire well over 100 shots at its maximum fps rate before it needs to pause for breath. At any other capture setting, however, you're going to have significant wait times before you can start shooting again once the buffer is full. As expected, the slowest performance occurs when you shoot raw and JPEG simultaneously. Once a burst of images fills the buffer, the frame rate drops to well below 1 fps. On a positive note we have found that unlike the GF2, the GF3's framerate and buffer fill rates are virtually identical regardless of focal length when using the Lumix G Vario 14-42mm F3.5-5.6 ASPH OIS kit lens. In both H and M modes, the GF3 takes a series of shots at the same capture rate and then another at a slightly slower capture rate before settling into the 'buffer full' rates you see in the table below. Curiously, in raw+JPEG mode, shooting at the M burst rate yields one additional shot at the maximum frame rate.

To generate the timings shown below, we shot with the camera's burst mode set to H, with a SanDisk Extreme Pro SDHC card.

Burst of JPEG 12MP/Fine images

16 GB SanDisk Extreme Pro
Frame rate 3.8 fps
Number of frames n/a
Write complete 1.5 sec

Burst of RAW images

16 GB SanDisk Extreme Pro
Frame rate 3.8 fps
Number of frames 6 (plus 1 additional frame after a brief pause)
Buffer full rate 0.7 fps
Write complete 9.5 sec

Burst of RAW plus JPEG 12MP/Fine images

16 GB SanDisk Extreme Pro
Frame rate 3 fps
Number of frames 3 (plus 1 additional frame after a brief pause)
Buffer full rate 0.4 fps
Write complete 11 sec

Autofocus speed / accuracy

We have always been impressed with the AF performance of the G-series cameras compared with competitive systems that also use contrast-detection AF and even some entry-level DSLRs. The GF3 continues this trend, and gives essentially the same AF performance as its 'big brother' the DMC-G3. With a sensor readout capable of sampling 120 times per second, the GF3's speedy focus acquisition may well be the most noticeable upgrade for users coming from compact cameras. In well lit scenes of static subjects with strong contrast, using both the Lumix G Vario 14-42mm F3.5-5.6 ASPH OIS and Lumix G 14mm F2.5 ASPH kit lenses, we found acquisition times from shutter press to image capture as fast as 0.3 seconds which is very impressive indeed.

Of course, the Achilles heel of any contrast-detection AF system is low light, poor subject contrast or a combination of the two. Overall, we found performance in these environments to be roughly on par with that of entry-level DSLRs. The GF3 wouldn't be our top choice for shooting a sports event, for example, but in daily outdoor use with either kit lens, we have found that it rarely failed to acquire focus of static subjects quickly and accurately.

AFC tracking

When set to AFC mode (continuous autofocus) the GF3 employs its contrast-detection AF to track the subject. Based on the tracking performance of previous G-series models we were not expecting miracles here, and our experience of shooting has proven that our caution is justified. Results were on par with our findings in the Panasonic Lumix DMC-G3 review.