Providing a larger image sensor in a compact camera body has, in the past year, arguably become the holy grail of consumer camera development. It seems that all of the major camera manufacturers are working on a solution to this technical problem, or are talking about a solution, or are talking about why they're not working on a solution. In each case, the quest for DSLR image quality in a smaller, more accessible camera has become almost all-consuming in the build up to the 2008 holiday season.
Panasonic was one of the early adopters on this bandwagon, joining Olympus in the development of a Micro Four Thirds standard that specifies squeezing a Four Thirds format DSLR imager into a space requiring about half the depth of the full-size Four Thirds mount. The Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1 is the first actual camera to come to market taking advantage of this development, and when Panasonic called to see if we wanted to spend a day shooting a pre-production G1 in conjunction with the European launch of the camera in Cologne, Germany, we weren't about to turn down the opportunity. I had spent some hands-on time with another pre-production Lumix G1 prior to this week's shooting event, and have already made my opinions about the G1 as a concept clear. The only question remaining in my mind is whether the actual camera lives up to this concept's lofty aims.
Holding the Lumix G1 with its 14-45mm kit lens for the first time, you may be surprised. Although it's smaller than even the smallest DSLRs currently on the market, the size gap between the G1 and something like the Olympus E-420 isn't as pronounced as you may expect. Think of it as a consumer DSLR and lens at three-quarter scale and you'd be on the right track.
During the European launch of the G1, Panasonic emphasized that they could have made the camera smaller. Micro Four Thirds system permits further size reductions all around, as evidenced by Olympus's slim concept camera using this same system. Rather than scaling things down to their theoretical limit, Panasonic was interested in developing a camera that's comfortably compact. Those looking for the ultimate in size reduction may be disappointed, but most users will find that the camera strikes a nice balance. It's easy to hold, and appreciably lighter than a typical DSLR kit, without giving up too much in the ergonomics department in the process.
I've never been a bit fan of electronic viewfinders, or EVFs. As a rule, they're saddled with so many compromises as to almost negate their usefulness. It's rare among cameras that use them – ultrazooms, mostly – that you find one that refreshes smoothly, doesn't look gridded or pixelated, and provides enough sharpness to manually focus if desired. At some point along the way, we all learned to begrudgingly accept these compromises.
Because the G1 doesn't have a traditional mirror/mirror box, a through-the-lens optical viewfinder is out of the question for this application. So Panasonic went back to the drawing board on the EVF concept, sourcing technology from their camcorder line to equip the new Lumix with the absolute best electronic finder I've ever had the pleasure of shooting through. All of those things you assume about an EVF? Forget them. They really don't apply here. The viewfinder image is wide, bright, and so life-like you'll wonder if there's really an LCD in there at all. A total of 1.4 million pixels are to thank for the viewfinder's incredible sharpness, which makes manual focus (in conjunction with the camera's auto-point zoom in MF mode) a snap. An eye sensor automatically kicks on the EVF when you bring your eye up to it with no button pressing or menu adjustments required.
The G1 is forced by design to use a contrast detection AF system, and not the typically faster and more precise phase detection technologies used in pure SLRs. How this system will stack up against the entry-level DSLRs it will compete against in the marketplace is a question that's been looming large since the initial Micro Four Thirds announcement. Even with this in the back of my mind during several hours of shooting with the G1, I was pleasantly surprised by just how little I noticed the camera's auto focus until or unless I went looking for trouble. First impressions of the system suggest that compared to compact cameras using contrast detection AF, the G1's very quick AF system would be at or near the front of the pack when working good light; it seems like the G1 is well prepared to challenge the speed of some slower focusing entry-level DSLRs as well. Of course, I wasn't able to precisely measure the G1's AF lock speed during my limited time with the camera: our test unit wasn't a final firmware version, and I had no equipment handy to get anything more precise than a hand-timed number.
With all of the discussion about how crucial solid AF performance will be for this camera's overall success, pushing the Lumix's AF technology to see where it slipped up turned into something of an obsession. Over the course of the day, I kept running the G1 through difficult focusing situations (low light, low contrast, moving subject, through glass), looking for the seams. The fact that the only noteworthy focus hunting and missing came in low contrast, low light indoor shooting – an area where few cameras of any type do well – bodes well for the G1.
Just as we'll have to wait for a final production version of the G1 to fully evaluate its performance, Panasonic requested that we not evaluate finer points of image quality based on this pre-production version. Hence, you'll only find screen-resolution versions of our G1 samples with this piece. Even from the small images, though, salient large-level points about the G1 stand out: the camera seems to meter especially well, and smooth, vibrant color reproduction across the spectrum is the name of the game here. In short, the latest Lumix's images look like what you'd expect from a large-sensor camera.
We should be landing a final-firmware version of the camera before too long, and will provide our usual detailed analysis of the G1's image quality in our full review. In the meantime, in addition to the images shown here, you can find a few more shots from the Lumix in our Flickr gallery.
While Panasonic has built what appears, at first evaluation, to be a very good camera with the G1, what may ultimately hold it back from being a great one is its interface. In spite of the company's talk about building the "ultimate bridge camera," the G1's interface often feels like it's structured with a more advanced photographer than your typical transition buyer in mind. A sizable helping of buttons, switches, and knobs will be a welcomed change for those of us who tire of having to navigate menus to make every control adjustment. At the same time, the G1 uses perhaps more than its share of menu options – further confused by the fact that settings are often presented in different ways depending on whether you're shooting through the viewfinder or with the screen, whether you're adjusting settings via the Quick Menu or their own dedicated buttons, and so forth.
I tend to adapt quickly to new camera interfaces, but at the end of my shooting day with the G1 I was still fumbling around for some common adjustments. We'll be sure to spend some time seeing if we can uncover a hidden logic in the G1's interface that didn't reveal itself to me during my time with the camera. At the moment, however, it seems that for all the lip service paid to building a camera that addresses SLR complexity issues, pure novices may still find the Lumix's basic setup as intimidating as most other entry-level interchangeable lens cameras.
Equally, while serious shutterbugs aren't the G1's primary audience per Panasonic, the ability of Micro Four Thirds to offer a nearly pocket-size camera with (most of) the power of a full-size DSLR seems to be quickly growing the G1's appeal among this segment. And for shooters who already know their way around an SLR, the G1 may be just about perfect: control redundancies could be a little clearer, but the ability to set up the G1 with a status LCD in place of live preview on the back panel for monitoring and adjusting exposure settings is really quite excellent. It makes the G1, with its superbly smooth and bright EVF, feel convincingly like an SLR, instead of the bad imitation of one put on by many EVF-equipped ultrazooms.
Even after some quality time with the new camera, there's a lot yet to be uncovered. In fact, I've really just begun to wrap my mind around everything the G1 does. But we now have a much better idea of what still needs lots of detailed analysis for the full review. No word yet on when we should expect a final version of the camera to put through its paces, but we're betting on having a G1 in house before the end of next month if things proceed as scheduled. Stay tuned for a detailed review of this unique new model.