Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3: Build and Design

August 4, 2011 by Howard Creech Reads (11,611)
Editor's Rating

Ratings Breakdown (1-10)

    • Image/Video Quality
    • 9
    • Features
    • 8
    • Design / Ease of Use
    • 8
    • Performance
    • 9
    • Expandability
    • 7
    • Total Score:
    • 8.20
    • Rating 1 to 10, top score 10

A consortium of camera/imaging OEMs including Olympus and Panasonic developed the Micro Four Thirds (4:3 is the aspect ratio of a standard computer monitor) system by eliminating the reflex mirror assemblies and optical viewfinders found on DSLRs to create a whole new class of much smaller and substantially lighter interchangeable lens cameras.

Panasonic Lumix GF3

Panasonic’s Micro Four Thirds format GF-series has been very popular with consumers since the groundbreaking GF1 was introduced. The GF1 looked like a traditional rangefinder camera with conventional (buttons, knobs, dials, and switches) controls and was targeted at photo enthusiasts.

The second generation GF2 is smaller and looks more like a compact point-and-shoot. It handles like a compact too, with many conventional controls replaced by the large touchscreen LCD. The third generation GF3 takes that market driven metamorphosis a step further. Designers, engineers, and marketing/product development folks at Panasonic sought to build exactly what consumers seemed to want – a tiny, easy-to-use digicam with the ability to use interchangeable lenses.

Some GF1 owners feel they’ve been betrayed by Panasonic’s abrupt switch in direction, but corporate decision makers dependably pursue profits – and in this case, it looks like they made the correct decision. Olympus’ Pen series Micro Four Thirds cameras provide an updated rangefinder look and feel for those who prefer a more traditional/conventional camera style. Panasonic went after the much larger demographic that wants tiny, high performance, easy to use cameras with the ability to interchange lenses. The world’s second smallest Micro Four Thirds format digital camera is almost twenty per cent smaller and nearly 20 percent lighter than the GF2 – in fact with the Lumix 14mm f/2.5 pancake prime lens mounted, the pocketable GF3 is noticeably smaller than Canon’s upscale G12.

The GF3 doesn’t look at all retro, but it seems to be built to old-school standards. The metal alloy body feels substantial and well constructed, but it doesn’t feel heavy. Weather seals and dust-proofing appear to be first rate. Everything on the camera seems like it was engineered to stand the test of time with the exception of the plastic cover of the battery/memory card compartment.

In my opinion, the GF3 is tough enough to go just about anywhere including extreme environments – like shooting winter sports or using the GF3 while trekking through the desert or exploring in the cloud forest.

Ergonomics and Controls
Many veteran photographers prefer larger cameras because ergonomics are generally better. Bigger cameras provide larger buttons, a better grip, and more stable handling. I’ve been a photographer for more than forty years, but I’ve always loved small cameras. I owned a Rollei 35S for more than twenty years and I only got rid of it when I stopped shooting 35mm film. The GF3 is about the same size as my old Rollei 35S, but the similarities end there.

Panasonic Lumix GF3

The GF3 has only a few traditional/conventional controls, all of which are logically placed and easily accessed. What controls the GF3 is its touchscreen LCD. I don’t like touchscreen LCDs, and I’ve been disappointed in their responsiveness every time I’ve used one. Just because something works nicely on one type of electronic device (cell phones) doesn’t mean that it will work as well with another class of electronic device like digital cameras.

That said, I have to eat a little crow here. The GF3 has the best touchscreen LCD I’ve used to date – interaction between user and device is almost seamless. I only had the camera for a bit more than a week (Panasonic is experiencing some very high demand for test units), but I used the touchscreen LCD heavily and I never once had to tap the screen more than once to get what I wanted.

Panasonic Lumix GF3

Until I used the GF3’s touchscreen LCD I would never have considered buying a touchscreen LCD equipped digital camera. I haven’t changed my mind about touchscreen LCDs – I still prefer traditional controls, but I would definitely buy a GF3.

The GF3 combines a few essential buttons with the touchscreen LCD for a well-designed and very responsive control array. I’ll only mention two buttons – the Quick Menu/Function button (which in default mode) opens up the Quick Menu in shooting mode and functions as the delete button in review mode. What’s really nifty is that the Quick Menu/Function button can also be used as a custom personal shortcut menu that places up to ten function icons at the bottom of the screen. Users can choose which functions are displayed by simply dragging and dropping the functions they want to the tool bar. On the camera’s top deck is the button that actives the GF3’s superb Intelligent Auto mode.

Menus and Modes
Generally I set all my preferences the first time I use a camera and then utilize the menus only when absolutely necessary. The GF3’s menu system is straightforward, well designed and dependably logical so my occasional use of the menu system was painless and relatively easy. The GF3 is a versatile and very capable camera and the sheer volume of user options, functions, features and information can be daunting, but the menus are mostly easy to navigate. That’s an important consideration because with fewer traditional/conventional buttons, knobs, and switches at their disposal, shooters are obliged to use the menus more frequently.

Panasonic Lumix GF3

The G3’s Quick menu/Function button provides direct access to the most commonly changed/adjusted features/functions and it is personally customizable – permitting users to load it with the features/functions they choose. The Quick menu/Function button can also be programmed to provide direct access to one specific function (like exposure compensation or WB), but selecting this option will deny further access to the Quick Menu. To select a shooting mode users enable the virtual mode dial on the touchscreen LCD and then select the shooting mode they prefer.

Here’s a breakdown of the GF3’s shooting modes:

  • iAuto: The GF3 has the very best intelligent Auto mode I’ve seen to date. Put the GF3 in iA mode and the camera will select the appropriate scene mode for the subject, detect and lock on any faces in the scene, balance contrast, sharpen the image, and reduce blur automatically.
  • iAuto Plus: Enable Intelligent Auto+ mode and the camera will present a set of slider controls to adjust the level of background blur (apparent depth of field), brightness (exposure compensation), and color/white balance
  • Program: Auto exposure with user input
  • Shutter Priority: The user selects the shutter speed and the camera selects the appropriate aperture for correct exposure
  • Aperture Priority: The user selects the aperture and the camera selects the appropriate shutter speed for correct exposure
  • Manual: The user selects all exposure parameters
  • Custom: Auto Exposure with user selected exposure parameters
  • SCN: portrait, soft skin, scenery, architecture, sports, peripheral defocus, flower, food, objects, night portrait, night scenery, illuminations, baby 1&2, pet, party, and sunset
  • Movie Mode: The GF3 records full HD movies at 1920x1080i @60fps in AVCHD video file format with monaural audio

Like all Micro Four Thirds format digital cameras the GF3 doesn’t provide an optical viewfinder – the 3.0-inch touchscreen live-view LCD must be used for all composition, menu navigation and image review. The Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3 features the same 460,000 pixel touchscreen LCD as the GF2. The GF3’s LCD screen is sharp, color accurate, fluid, and offers very good outdoor visibility.

There’s a live histogram (which can be placed anywhere in the frame), and users can draw their own custom grid lines on the touch screen. Users also have the following touch screen options:

  • Touch AF: Frame your subject on the LCD and then simply touch your subject and the GF3 will focus on the precise point where your finger touched the screen. Be careful when using Touch AF because it’s easy to touch the screen accidentally and change the focus point.
  • Touch Shutter: Simply touch your subject on the screen after AF lock is achieved and the GF3 will trip the shutter.
  • Touch Defocus/Exposure/White Balance: In iA+ mode use the on screen sliders to adjust the amount of background blur, the exposure, or the white balance.
  • Touch Playback: In review mode simply slide your finger to move from photo-to-photo or double-tap to zoom in on an individual photo.

Like all LCD screens, the GF3’s display is subject to fading and glare in bright outdoor lighting. The DCR test lab objectively measures LCD peak brightness to assist our readers in making more informed digital camera purchasing decisions. Peak brightness for the GF3’s LCD screen (the panel’s output of an all-white screen at full brightness) is 267 nits and on the dark side (black luminance) the measurement is 0.60 nits. The GF3’s default info display provides all the data this camera’s target audience is likely to want or need.

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