The Panasonic Lumix GF1 is the lastest member of the Micro Four Thirds family. But before Micro Four Thirds, there was Four Thirds. With Olympus having produced relatively small film SLRs since at least the early 1970s, it was probably no surprise that they would partner with Kodak to introduce the Four Thirds System standard (with its sub APS-C sized sensor) as they prepared to move into the digital age. The smaller sensor helped the company produce diminutive DSLRs that carried on the Olympus tradition.
In early August 2008, Olympus and Panasonic announced the joint development of the Micro Four Thirds System standard which will permit "... the development of radically more compact and lightweight interchangeable lens type digital camera systems based on the Micro Four Thirds System standard." That press release continued:
"When compared to the Four Thirds System standard, the primary distinguishing characteristics of the Micro Four Thirds System standard are:
* Image sensor diagonal dimensions are the same for both Four Thirds System and Micro Four Thirds System standards."
That asterisked part is significant - the Panasonic GF1 we're testing today has the same physical-sized sensor as the top gun in the Olympus DSLR fleet, the E-3, but without the bulky mirror assembly of the DSLR. The net result is a fairly compact digital that can make use of not only the two Panasonic-branded lenses currently offered in-box with the camera, but some 20 Leica M/R lenses and 30 Four Thirds System lenses (with appropriate adaptors).
Our review model came with a 14-45mm zoom (a 20mm "pancake" lens is the other option). Four Thirds/Micro Four Thirds cameras have a 2x crop factor, so that 14-45 shoots like a 28-90mm (35mm equivalent) and looks like this at each end of the zoom:
Sensor resolution is 12.1 megapixels and there are full manual and auto controls, plus a palette of user-established settings that rival DSLRs in number and scope. You can shoot in RAW if you choose, or RAW/JPEG combinations, and there's 1280x720 HD video in AVCHD Lite (which is more memory efficient than Motion JPEG) or Motion JPEG formats. Because of space considerations inherent in the Micro Four Thirds System, a 3.0 inch LCD monitor operating in Live View is the only means of image composition and framing for capture. An electronic view finder may be added as an option and there's a built-in dust reduction system.
The camera uses SD/SDHC memory media, and Panasonic includes a battery charger/AC adapter, battery pack, body cap, AV cable, USB connection cable, AC cable, DC cable, shoulder strap and CD-ROM software with each camera.
Panasonic would seem to have all the hardware in place to produce "pro-level picture quality in an ultra compact design" - the same sensor size as the top Olympus DSLR, a quiver of interchangeable lenses from various makers, and a camera body that is undeniably compact (in comparison to DSLRs and the larger ultrazooms). Let's see how all this comes together in the field.
BUILD AND DESIGN
The GF1 body tapes out at 2.8x4.69x1.43 inches - bigger than the deck of cards/pack of cigarettes template of the typical compact point and shoot, but very small for a camera with an interchangeable lens capability. The body is metal, seems well built and solid, and is finished with matte black paint.
Ergonomics and Controls
Featuring an overall rectangular body with rounded edges, the GF1 has a slight ridge running vertically on the right front of the body and a small thumb rest on the upper right rear. The thumb and forefinger of the right hand fall naturally to the thumb rest and shutter button, respectively.
This design and layout contributes to a fairly secure feeling during one-handed shooting, but folks moving into a GF1 from more traditional compacts may take a while to get used to the added weight - the GF1 comes in at almost 10 ounces without a lens, and the 14-45 zoom adds another 6.9 ounces.
Overall, camera balance and feel were good with this lens, and Panasonic has wisely placed no controls or sensors on the left front of the camera body that is the natural resting point for the left thumb during two-handed shooting.
One concern to prospective buyers might be if the handling characteristics experienced with the 14-45mm lens carry over when longer and heavier lenses are mounted on the camera. Switching to a faster and longer 50-200mm Zuiko zoom adds over 1.5 pounds, an inch of diameter and about 4 inches of lens length. If you think your future includes a longer lens for the GF1, try before you buy to make sure you can live with the bigger glass.
The top and back of the camera body contain all external controls and my right thumb overlapped the white balance, ISO and delete buttons to a degree, but there were no accidental activations in my time shooting the camera.
The motion picture button on the right top of the body allows you to record video with a single push from whatever shooting mode the camera is set in; a second push stops recording and returns you to the previously selected shooting mode.
Menus and Modes
As you might expect from a camera with interchangeable lenses, the GF1 has a DSLR-like forest of menus and sub-menus, and are fortunately fairly intuitive to navigate. For example, in the manual shooting modes, the record menu runs five pages alone. Then, if you select the film mode (color shooting options) sub-menu you're presented with another page that details the current selection (vibrant) along with contrast, sharpness, saturation and noise reduction adjustments. Right and left arrows next to vibrant indicate there are other color options available through scrolling (and accompanied by the same mix of adjustments for each color choice).
The GF1 also has a handy quick menu button that calls up select settings that might ordinarily be adjustments you'd like to make on the fly: a wide range of settings for manual modes with fewer options for the automatic modes.
There are nine primary shooting modes:
The GF1 boasts a 3.0 inch LCD monitor with approximately 460,000 dot composition, 7 levels of adjustment for brightness and 100% coverage. Unfortunately, there are times in bright outdoor light when the monitor can be difficult to see, even with the range of adjustments available.
There is an optional live view finder (an electronic view finder) available from Panasonic, but details on Panasonic USA's website are somewhat sketchy and we didn't get a chance to try one for this review. It offers 100% coverage and is of 202,000 dot composition, with a diopter adjustment to fit a range of eyesight. MSRP for the finder is about $200 USD.
With reading glasses now a permanent part of my wardrobe, cameras with only monitors for image composition and capture are a pain - glasses pushed down on the nose so I can see over them to locate the subject, then tip the head back to see through the glasses so the monitor is clear.
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