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Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1 Review
by David Rasnake -  11/14/2008

For months, we've talked about it. We've carefully studied Panasonic's press materials, theorized about its performance, and even sampled pre-production units on not one but two occasions. After all of this, the moment of truth is here: our Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1 review unit rolled into the office a few weeks back and has been subjected to as much menu browsing, studio testing, and real-world shooting as our time with the camera would allow. Would the actual final version of this interchangeable-lens camera that is, to be picky, not actually an SLR at all warrant all the buzz it's generated?

Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1


As the first production Micro Four Thirds camera, the G1 represents both a revolutionary product and a fundamentally new overarching technology. Using interchangeable lenses, a large sensor, and a traditional shutter mechanism, but no mirror or optical viewfinder, the G1 is part DSLR and part point-and-shoot. The obvious concern with this "hybrid" design approach is that the resulting device will simultaneously compromise the best aspects of both point-and-shoots and SLRs: in trying to be a jack of all trades, as the saying goes, the G1 runs the risk of ending up a master of none. If the road to a final version of the G1 was paved with potential trouble spots, however, Panasonic seems to have successfully steered a course to a polished camera that feels, in our experience with the device, anything but cobbled together.

FEATURES OVERVIEW
FORM, FIT, AND FEEL
PERFORMANCE
IMAGE QUALITY
CONCLUSIONS
SPECIFICATIONS

FEATURES OVERVIEW
From the initial product announcement all the way back in September, the attention around the G1 has largely been due to the fact that this is the first Micro Four Thirds (MFT) camera to make its way to store shelves. Those who want more detail about what makes the MFT system unique should check out our write-up on the subject, but at its most basic, the concept behind the G1 – and behind MFT generally – is to bring DSLR image quality (courtesy of a full-size Four Thirds format image sensor) and the flexibility of interchangeable lenses to a camera with weight and size closer to that of a point-and-shoot. To this end, while the G1 retains the basic profile of a DSLR and is a ways from what could be termed "pocket size," it's also a clear step smaller than even the smallest DSLRs currently on the market.

A surface-level overview of the G1's features and performance can be found in our video review.

As a Micro Four Thirds system body, the G1 operates in a full-time live view mode with shot composition on either the camera's LCD or its electronic viewfinder, just like an advanced point-and-shoot. With on-LCD shot composition and a combination of SLR and point-and-shoot features and exposure control options, the G1 is clearly attempting to fill the "bridge camera" niche – providing many of the conveniences of an SLR (interchangeable lenses and excellent image quality) in a smaller, lighter, and easier to manage package.

It may be a combination of DSLR and point-and-shoot technologies, but the G1's most basic specs read like what you'd expect from a current consumer DSLR. At the center of it all, a newly developed 12.1 megapixel Four Thirds format "Live MOS" sensor handling imaging duties. Simultaneous four-channel data reading supplies a 60 fps imaging to the camera's display, meaning smoother, more lifelike shot composition whether you're using the camera's capacious 3.0 inch LCD or its thoroughly impressive electronic viewfinder (more on both of these in the next section).

One obvious technological challenge presented by MFT involves developing technologies to provide quick AF performance. Design considerations mean the G1 uses a point-and-shoot style contrast detection AF system, rather than the generally quicker and more accurate phase detection systems from DSLRs. In order to provide a DSLR-like AF experience, Panasonic has developed a new imaging engine, Venus Engine HD, utilizing a pair of processors. This arrangement gives the G1 an advanced 23-area auto focus system that also supports user-selectable single-area AF, continuous focus tracking, and face detection for up to 15 faces.

Because of its full-time live view operation, the G1 is also able to draw on many of the user-friendly "Intelligent" technologies developed for Panasonic's Lumix point-and-shoots. Most notably, the Lumix is equipped with Panasonic's iA Intelligent Auto mode. According to the manufacturer, iA offers an integration of several key technologies – including Intelligent ISO, Intelligent Exposure, automatic scene selection, and AF tracking – designed to improve the auto-exposure shooting experience.

The G1 isn't limited to auto-exposure shooting, though. Rather, the camera's range of shooting mode options runs the gamut from several fully automatic and scene presets with lots of new "hand holding" technologies to full manual exposure control. In short, the camera covers the complete spectrum of control levels needed to compete among consumer DSLRs. The following basic shooting modes are available:

From its My Color option to its "advanced" scene presets, the G1 provides a good measure of tweakability outside of its P/A/S/M modes – all presented in ways that are easier for novices to comprehend. Most interesting among these options is an on-screen preview function that demos the effects of narrower versus wider apertures, or faster versus slower shutter speeds, on the screen during shot composition. Crank the shutter speed down to 1/15 while pointing the camera at a moving subject, for instance, and the live on-screen preview of the subject will appear motion-blurred.

Although it doesn't offer video capture (though it's rumored that this function is on its way for future MFT cameras), the G1 nonetheless provides well thought-out integration with high-def displays via its built-in HDMI out. Conventional composite outputs are also available courtesy of the camera's included A/V cable.

Kit Lens
As an entirely new mount/camera system, you won't (initially, at least) have many lens options for your G1 beyond its kit optic. Hence, the fact that the camera's 14-45mm f/3.5-5.6 optically stabilized zoom lens is a pretty solid package – both in terms of build quality and performance – is definitely a good thing.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1

The tiny lens is solidly built, with an alloy case and a nice, smooth zoom ring. Optical performance is also quite good, with just a hint of edge softness and some green fringing providing the only areas of possible concern. Center sharpness is also good to excellent across the normal-use aperture range. All in all, while the need for Panasonic and its partners to build a strong family of MFT lenses is clear, few casual shooters (and even many serious ones) will be disappointed with the images this kit lens produces.

As an aside, with neither the optional MFT to Four Thirds adapter nor Panasonic's optional kit telephoto to work with, note that all sample images shot for this review were taken using the 14-45mm lens.

For a detailed listing of specifications and features, please refer to the specifications table found at the bottom of the review.


FORM, FIT, AND FEEL

Styling and Build Quality
In terms of its basic shape and footprint, the G1 is fairly conventional, looking like a slightly smaller version of a standard digital SLR. The overall shape is a little more squared off than most DSLRs these days, but basic styling is, at first glance, exactly what you'd expect from a consumer-grade interchangeable-lens camera.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1

A question that comes up a lot concerning the G1 is how much smaller this camera is than the smallest DSLRs out there – cameras like the Olympus E-420 and the Nikon D60. Straight size comparisons are easy enough to make with available data: the E-420, for instance, measures 5.2 inches wide by our ruler, whereas the G1 takes up 4.8 inches. Proportionally, this means that the G1 is about 90 percent as wide as the E-420, and this ratio is basically carried over into the other measurements as well. Not a huge reduction in size when you look at it objectively, is it?

But while the numbers comparing the smallest DSLRs to the G1 tell one story, actual side-by-side looks at the camera next to an entry-level DSLR of more normal proportions than the E-420's diminutive measurements paint a more realistic picture. Basically, the G1 feels and handles like an average entry-level DSLR at three-quarter size. As we've said frequently in discussing the camera since our first hands-on with it, the device is roughly the same size as a current ultrazoom – Panasonic's own FZ28 being a very close comparison in this case. Additionally, the new MFT kit lens feels particularly small next to your typical 18-55mm from Nikon or Canon, with what feels like about two-thirds the width of Nikon's beefy stabilization-equipped 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6, for instance.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1

So the G1 is definitely smaller – noticeably smaller – than a typical consumer DSLR. But it's also definitely not so small that you'll be able to drop it into your pocket. While the small size may be a bit more manageable and less intimidating, particularly for those users with smaller hands, if you're looking for large-sensor image quality in a package that's a lot more size-conscious and inconspicuous than a full SLR, simply put, this isn't it. If size is your primary motivator (but you still want something with a DSLR sensor), better to check out the Sigma DP1 or hold out for Olympus's forthcoming MFT concept. For that matter, an entry-level DSLR from Olympus or Pentax with a "pancake prime" will take up less net space than the G1 with its kit zoom.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1

Although our review unit was the pedestrian black variety, Panasonic is offering the G1 in blue and red hues as well – a first, according to the maker, among interchangeable-lens cameras. If it wasn't clear before that the company is targeting a transitional market with this product (that is, people for whom the G1 would be a first system camera), the option to get a G1 in racy red or cool blue (to match your pocket camera, perhaps?) instead of boring black or silver as with most entry-level DSLRs sends that message loud and clear. Whatever finish color you choose, the G1 comes wrapped in a rubberized outer coat that I like a lot: our time with the camera suggests that the finish is durable, scratch-resistant, and easy to keep clean, and it gives off a more high-quality vibe than the smooth plastic finish used on most of the G1's competitors.

Buttons and switches are all generally rugged as well, though the plastic sliders for the power and drive mode settings feel like they might be the most vulnerable of the G1's controls. Likewise for port covers and the battery door: while the build quality here is nothing to write home about, it's certainly in keeping with other entry-level and mid-priced DSLRs, and a cut above what you'll get from most point-and-shoots.

Ergonomics and Interface
Size reductions can be great, but anyone over the age of ten who has ever tried to use the Lilliputian controls on one of Panasonic's tiny ultracompacts can attest to the fact that miniaturization can also breed ergonomic unpleasantness. This is where the fact that the G1 isn't that much smaller than a compact DSLR works in this camera's favor. Panasonic's experience building ultrazooms has clearly be brought to bear on the control layout of this hybrid camera.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1

At a glance, button placement is very much like what we're used to from Panasonic's FZ cameras, with a small but not outrageously tiny four-way controller and a couple of dedicated buttons (DOF preview, AE/AF lock, etc.) on the back, and controls for changing the film simulation mode or calling up Panasonic's signature Quick Menu on top next to the shutter release. The G1 is also the beneficiary of several switch and knob controls: a multi-position switch next to the mode dial enables on-the-fly changes from single-shot to continuous shooting mode, and a complementary dial on the left-hand side of the top deck is used to select between single-shot and continuous auto focus and manual focus options.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1

Comparatively, the G1 boasts a lot of dedicated controls in a small space, and this sometimes made field use of the camera challenging. For instance, the close placement of the Film Mode and Q. Menu buttons up top often had me pressing one (usually the film emulator control) when I was looking for the other. Overall, though, the ergonomics and physical interface aren't bad, even for shooters with larger hands. Having a large, well-defined hand grip helps. Those looking for portability might have hoped for a flatter profile, but the grip gives the camera good balance for its modest weight and a familiar feel with most buttons following logically under your fingers.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1

A multi-function control dial at the front of the grip is used for various scroll-style adjustments (exposure compensation, etc.), and can be clicked as well for settings confirmation or to switch between dial functions in shooting mode.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1

Compared to the generally simple button layout, the on-screen interface is a bit of a different story. The first time I sat down with the G1, I found the number of on-screen control options – and the number of permutations for configuring what information is displayed on the LCD and what's displayed through the viewfinder – a little bewildering. Unfortunately, that didn't really change much in using the camera over several weeks. The menus themselves are typical Panasonic multi-page affairs, but the sheer number of features on this camera also make this arrangement a little cumbersome (and as always, it seems, Panasonic could do with some more logical grouping of items within their menu structure).

Advanced photographers coming from other DSLRs shouldn't experience more than slight annoyance in diving into what the G1 has to offer. For transition shooters moving up from point-and-shoots, however, the G1's interface may be a little too much: too much information, too many menus, and too many options. Conversely, there's nothing that says that you can't lock the camera in auto mode and shoot away. While you can configure or customize just about all of the things that you'd expected to be able to tweak on an advanced DSLR with this camera as well, it also does just fine as an auto-exposure only device.

Display/Viewfinder
If you didn't already know that the G1 wasn't your typical interchangeable-lens camera, your first clue would be its screen and display. While the camera's tilt/swivel 3.0 inch LCD isn't unique to Panasonic (Olympus's high-end DSLRs offer the same functionality), the G1's electronic viewfinder is. That's because that viewfinder on the G1 isn't prism or mirror based at all. What you see through it isn't a reflected view directly through the lens, like in most DSLRs: to reduce size, the Micro Four Thirds format does away completely with the mirror in front of the shutter that makes this possible. Instead, the viewfinder is, like the screen on a point-and-shoot or live view DSLR (or an electronic viewfinder on an ultrazoom, for that matter), a digital image of what the sensor "sees."

Electronic viewfinders, or EVFs, have a (well-deserved) reputation for being poor substitutes for a through-the-lens view. Commonly used on ultrazoom cameras, most EVFs that have gone before the G1 have been small, grainy displays that lack the sharpness necessary to do things that you might use a DSLR viewfinder for, like determine critical focus when manually focusing a lens. Recognizing that many SLR users prefer the compositional experience that a viewfinder offers, Panasonic went back to the drawing board on EVFs with the G1, and the result is a marked improvement over any digital viewfinder that I've ever used on a still camera.

Part of the secret to the G1's EVF success is its resolution: the viewfinder display advertises 1.4 million dots of resolution. By contrast, the EVF in Canon's S5 – about par for the course in terms of EVF performance on still cameras – sports a mere 133,000 dots. While you might not get ten times the sharpness from the G1's viewfinder compared to a typical EVF-equipped camera, you'll probably feel like you've come pretty darn close. The EVF can be configured to display the same heads-up information overlaid onto the composition image on the main screen (including functions like a live histogram and grid overlay, as well as Quick Menu settings adjustments), and the viewfinder can be used to navigate menus or playback images as well.

Purists will still argue that an EVF, no matter how good, is no replacement for a through-the-lens view, and in some ways they're right. Even with the camera's auto-zoom function providing an enlarged view of the focus area when focusing manually, it's not always easy to confirm focus through the viewfinder – even under near-ideal conditions. A good focusing screen and a bright TTL view are technologies that, in spite of their simplicity, are hard to match digitally. Likewise, lag can be a problem in low light, especially. Even with these criticisms, however, the G1's high-res viewfinder and fast 60 fps image refresh rate prove that while full-time live view solutions may never take hold as a primary technology for high-end system cameras, there's certainly enough capability in this approach to meet the needs of most SLR-buying general consumers.

The G1's viewfinder is surprisingly good for what it is, but the real potential of the G1's full-time live view approach is in the flexibility provided by its screen view. With a full 3.0 inches of area and nearly half a million dots of resolution, the G1's display is well-speced.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1

Even better than that, the screen – as noted above – can be swiveled and tilted at just about any angle you can dream up. The ability to capture DSLR-quality shots inconspicuously with the camera at waist level makes the G1 a great tool for candid captures in particular, and while I tend to prefer composing shots through a viewfinder, it's easy to get spoiled to being able to easily shoot over your head or down low too.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1

There's clearly a lot to like about the G1's display, but we found some nits to pick with the screen as well. First, although Panasonic has tightened up the display's swivel mount compared to what we saw in pre-production samples, the screen still feels a bit delicate when rotated out on its pivot. Compositional images were usually bright enough to see outdoors with brightness boosted, but a more glare- and smudge-resistant protective layer atop the panel would be a welcomed addition just the same. And in spite of higher-than-average refresh rates that show off their stuff in the way of excellent smoothness when panning or tracking moving subjects in good light, the LCD trailed worse than most high-end point-and-shoot screens when gained up to deal with low light situations.

Finally, the G1 features an eye sensor that automatically switches the preview image from the screen to the viewfinder (or simply turns off the screen, if you have the LCD set to show status information). If left in auto mode, the sensor can be a little finicky: shadows passing over the sensor, for instance, would sometimes disable the screen inadvertently. A dedicated button above the LCD can be used to toggle between the two display options, however.


PERFORMANCE

Timings and Shutter Lag
Design requirements of the Micro Four Thirds system mean that the G1 doesn't use the kind of auto focus technology (known as phase-detection) typically employed for DSLRs. Instead, the camera employs a contrast-detection system, which uses the primary image sensor and processor to determine focus. While such technology is the norm for point-and-shoots, DSLRs using contrast-detection AF in their live view mode (like Canon's newest Rebel models) have lagged behind – quite literally – the performance seen from point-and-shoots. A good modern compact camera may offer focusing performance in good light that's very close to what DSLRs using phase-detection systems provide, but technological limitations, particularly on the lens side, have made this performance hard to implement in interchangeable-lens cameras.

With all of this in mind, we weren't entirely sure what to expect in terms of basic performance from the G1. Pre-production versions of the camera I'd shot with felt surprisingly responsive for a contrast-detection AF system, but without controlled test results to back up this feeling I wondered if my optimism about the G1 as a whole might be coloring my subjective evaluations of the camera's performance. Having now had a chance to run the G1 through our usual battery of timings tests, I can say with certainty that while our results show some interesting tendencies, overall speed and responsiveness is indeed very competitive. For references purposes, we've put the G1 up against other entry-level DSLRs, and the fact that the camera is competitive in this crowd (if never class leading) is a testament to its solid performance all around.

Shutter Lag (press-to-capture, pre-focused)

Camera Time (seconds)
Canon Rebel XS
0.03
Pentax K200D
0.04
Olympus E-420
0.05
Nikon D60
0.08
Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1 0.10

AF Acquisition (press-to-capture, no pre-focus)

Camera Time (seconds)
Canon Rebel XS
0.19
Nikon D60
0.23
Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1 0.38
Olympus E-420
0.48
Pentax K200D 0.56

While we were pleasantly surprised with the G1's DSLR-like AF numbers in good light, it's also interesting to note the camera's somewhat slow pure shutter lag (the time from press to capture when holding the shutter release button halfway) compared to both DSLRs and even many point-and-shoots. The difference here won't likely lose many shots unless you shoot action exclusively, but the Panasonic may also require just a hair more anticipation when working with fast-moving subjects.

Continuous Shooting

Camera Frames Framerate
Olympus E-420 10 3.4 fps
Canon Rebel XS 3.0 fps
Nikon D60 6 3.0 fps
Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1
2.9 fps
Pentax K200D
4 2.8 fps

Note: Continuous shooting framerates are based on the camera's fastest full-resolution JPEG continuous shooting mode, using the fastest media type available (300x CF, Class 6 SDHC, etc.). "Frames" notes the number of captures recorded per burst before the camera stops/slows to clear the buffer.

As with its basic performance numbers, the G1 doesn't jump to the head of the class in its continuous shooting speed (and fell just a hair short of its advertised mark in our evaluation). It does offer a respectable 2.9 fps performance, however, and with a Class 6 SDHC, the camera will keep chugging along at this pace seemingly infinitely.

Auto Focus
Numbers above suggest that the G1 is a capable performer on the AF side in good light, and while we did encounter the occasional kind of slip-up more common to point-and-shoot auto focus than DSLR systems (some infinity-and-back focusing movement against subjects with limited contrast, primarily), the G1 didn't struggle to get a quick, consistent lock across the range of its kit lens at least. Low light wasn't always the Lumix's favorite place to be, but with the easy-to-cover AF assist lamp enabled, our worst recorded AF acquisition times with the G1 were around 1.2 seconds in near-total darkness (using only the assist beam to light the subject) at full telephoto.

Unlike Panasonic's point-and-shoots, which tend to feature a panoply of auto focus modes, the G1 keeps things relatively simple. In addition to the aforementioned focus drive options (for continuous focus drive as well as manual focus) found on the top-side dial, the G1's basic area modes include a single center-point setting, an automatic multi-area option, and a user-selected mode that allows you to move the focusing area to any of the system's 23 defined areas via the control pad. Showing some of the camera's point-and-shoot heritage, there's also a face detection system (which, from all indications, works flawlessly), and an implementation of Panasonic's nifty area tracking function. First seen on the company's advanced point-and-shoots, area tracking AF allows you to lock onto a specific object or area in the frame, and the camera will hold focus on that area (provided the camera is moved such that the area/object is no longer in the frame, of course). As on the company's compacts, tracking works acceptably well with moving subjects, but can also get tripped up in low light or when locking on subjects that don't contrast strongly against their backdrop.

In general, one of the nicest things about the G1's AF system is its flexibility. The ability to move the focus point around the screen in single-point/multi-area AF mode is one of the great advantages over most sub-$1000 DSLRs with their limited number of focus points, and you can even scale the size of the focus area up or down. Try doing that with your DSLR. I didn't care, however, for the somewhat confusing process by which you access point adjustment: the G1's four-way controller has to serve many functions, but when shooting in user-selected AF area mode, I'd prefer it if the controller defaulted to moving the point with a button press required to access the controller's usual functions, instead of the other way around.

A simple flip of the appropriate dial sends the G1 into manual focus mode. Like previous Four Thirds format lenses, the G1's kit lens uses a "focus by wire" system to connect its smooth-moving and nicely sized focusing ring to the actual movement of lens elements. I maintain that this system feels a little disconnected, and with the whisper quiet movement of the kit lens's internals, you'll wonder at first if turning the ring is actually doing anything. An on-screen enlargement box zooms in on the center focus area, easing the task of confirming focus either on the LCD or via the EVF. It's no replacement for a bright optical viewfinder and a through-the-lens view, but the G1's exceptional EVF and focus zoom function works well enough to assure sharp focus assuming your depth of field is a bit forgiving.

Lens Mount
As noted, the Lumix G1 is the first Micro Four Thirds camera to hit the market. Basic specs of the MFT mount are similar to its full-size Four Thirds forerunner: while the mount size is physically smaller, the 2x crop factor that applies to other Four Thirds cameras applies here as well, meaning the 14-45mm kit lens shows a field of view equivalent to 28-90mm glass on a full-frame 35mm system.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1

Overall, we applaud Panasonic for bringing us the first Micro Four Thirds camera. But being the first can also have its drawbacks. In the case of the G1, available lens selection for the camera's open format mount is definitely one of them. At the moment, a grand total of two MFT lenses are available, both from Panasonic: the 14-45mm kit lens used with the G1 for this review, and a Lumix 45-200mm telephoto available as part of the camera's two-lens kit. That's it.

I'll reiterate that we were pleased with the performance of the kit lens for general walk-around shooting (though I repeatedly wished for closer close focusing), and my experience using a pre-production 45-200mm was equally positive. These two lenses should serve the general picture taking needs of step-up shooters admirably. But I also can't help but think that some photographers wanting to do more with their cameras (macro shooting for starters) will find the comparatively huge array of lenses available to Canon and Nikon – and even Pentax and full-size Micro Four Thirds – shooters more appealing than the G1's excellent live view.

With an MFT product from Olympus on the horizon and a couple of exciting new lenses on Panasonic's "roadmap" for 2009, relief may be on the way. In the meantime, Panasonic is also offering an optional adapter that allows full-size Four Thirds lenses from Olympus, Panasonic/Leica, and Sigma to be mounted to the G1. Trouble is, only a handful of them (about ten, according to the most recent updates) provide even limited compatibility at the moment. That list is also likely to grow, but the limitations of the adapter at the moment – plus the bulk that it adds – make it a less attractive option than native Micro Four Thirds glass.

In short, if you're a casual shooter, you should be able to get by with the selection of lenses that Panasonic and Olympus are offering (or will be offering soon). If you have specific lens needs, though, or want the support and flexibility of a big system and want it now, you'll probably be better off going another route at this point.

(As a final aside, the first time you take the lens off of the G1, you may be shocked to see the sensor sitting happily out in the open – not even covered by the shutter when the power's off. It's a disconcerting sight that raised my dust paranoia to new heights while shooting this review. The G1 has a sensor-shaking dust reduction system that will hopefully help keep things clean in there, and although we didn't have any problems that I've noticed with dust on the sensor during our review period, following good lens swap protocols may prove to be a must with this camera given its design.)

Flash
In DSLR fashion, the G1 features both a manually deployed pop-up flash and a hot shoe. A guide number of just over 10 meters puts the on-board unit in the same ballpark as most entry-level DSLRs in terms of power, though camera's like Canon's latest Rebel models are sporting 13 meter flash ranges at baseline sensitivity these days. In our limited flash testing, performance of the built-in strobe was unremarkable, but did the job just fine with few exposure concerns. The G1 recharges a full-power flash burst in a quick 3.6 seconds – again, on par with expectations for an entry-level DSLRs.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1

Like all DSLRs and many advanced compacts, the G1 also features a hot shoe. As in the case of lenses, one disadvantage of buying into a camera system like Panasonic's is the comparative lack of available flashguns: with Canon or Nikon, loads of compatible models makes it easier to find a suitable unit at just about any camera shop – and certainly easier to find one used. If you're just looking for a little additional kick or some on-camera bounce illumination, the G1's hot shoe and compatible flash units can oblige, but for advanced flash control you'll want to look elsewhere. Then again, it's fair to ask how many potential G1 customers will really care or even notice.

Both built-in and hot shoe mounted flashes are controlled by the G1's TTL flash metering system, which provides the expected range of controls (primarily, flash exposure compensation) and mode options (including first- and second-curtain slow sync) for a DSLR.

Image Stabilization
Unlike many of Micro Four Thirds partner Olympus's DSLRs, Panasonic's image stabilization approach is lens based rather than body based. Hence, you'll need an IS lens to get the benefits of stabilization. At present, both of Panasonic's available MFT lenses (thus, including the 14-45mm kit lens) have optical stabilization built in. There are no on-body controls for the system; users can only disable or enable the system in total via the switch on the lens barrel.

Battery
Interpreting accurate "real world" battery life numbers for the G1 proved to be more of a challenge than anticipated. Since it's a full-time live view camera, comparisons between the G1 and the entry-level DSLRs it competes against (on which live view is used sparingly and rarely factors into our battery tests) aren't necessarily meaningful.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1

Panasonic advertises 330 shots per charge with the G1 when using its LCD for composition (and slightly better numbers when using the EVF only). In my nearly two weeks with the camera, I only charged the battery once, and was able to get more than 280 shots fired off over several days, as well as lots of time spent reviewing images and exploring menus, before the camera forced a shut down. With most competitive DSLRs, we'd expect a baseline somewhere in the 500-shot range at least, but comparing the G1 to Canon's G10 advanced compact, which turned in similar numbers, seems more reasonable.


IMAGE QUALITY
Summing up the G1's overall image quality in a phrase is simple enough: it probably won't surprise anyone to learn that the camera produces images that are on par with (and in some cases, given excellent metering and color reproduction, superior to) what we've seen from other Four Thirds DSLRs.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1

Noise hinders image cleanliness beyond ISO 800 in the case of the G1, meaning it's not likely to replace anyone's D700 or 5D anytime soon. But if you're looking for more richness and dynamic range than even the best small-sensor compacts provide, the G1 definitely delivers.

Exposure, Processing, and Color
The G1 covers all the metering bases, with multi-segment, center-weighted, and spot metering modes providing the necessary tools for setting exposure depending on your shooting situation and preference. Working primarily in the camera's default multi mode, as most G1 shooters will likely do, I was impressed with how well the metering held together outdoors in particular, requiring little coaxing to hold most of the highlights under all but the most difficult conditions.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1

If anything, in fact, the camera more consistently underexposes lower-contrast scenes by half a stop or so.

On the exposure side, there's also a multi-step dynamic range control tool (Intelligent Exposure) aboard the G1. In terms of results, the degree to which the function actually expands blocked up shadows is relatively minimal; among functions of this kind, the results from Panasonic's Intelligent Exposure system were closer to Canon's very subtle d-range technology than the aggressive implementations we've seen from Sony and Nikon DSLRs.

I found the overall image look from the G1 pleasing, lacking the strongly processed look more common to point-and-shoots. Depending on what JPEG output settings you're using, you may see a few hard edges due to oversharpening, but as a rule, the G1's baseline processing produces a slightly soft image that takes post-process sharpening well.

Equally, colors with the Lumix are at once vibrant and generally accurate. As with other Panasonic cameras we've looked at, the G1's default settings do have a tendency to oversaturate reds in particular – to the point of channel clipping in vibrant scenes. This proclivity is relatively easy to tone down, though, with the help of Panasonic's system of Film Modes. As with Panasonic's other advanced cameras, the connection to "film" is a bit tenuous: you won't find presets here that invoke the names of classic films like Velvia or Tri-X. What you do get, though, is a fairly comprehensive and well considered suite of JPEG processing presets that you can further tailor to suit your needs; best of all, they're easily accessible via a dedicated button on the camera's top panel.

The complete list of processing presets is long, with six color options (Standard, Dynamic, Nostalgic, Vibrant, Smooth, and Nature), three black-and-white choices (Standard, Dynamic, and Smooth), and a pair of placeholders to store your favorite combinations of settings or tweaks to existing presets. Each setting is built from a combination of five-level saturation, sharpness, and contrast settings, and there's also a dedicated noise reduction slider for each preset option.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1
Standard

Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1
Vibrant

Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1
Nostalgic

The selected handful of presets shown above highlight the wide range of looks that can be achieved even without further fine-tuning of the preset system. The Vibrant option sits at one extreme of the spectrum in terms of saturation and contrast; at the other end, the Nostalgic setting is generally neutral, imparting a hint of warmth while kicking the saturation down several notches.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1

If you enjoy shooting in-camera monochromes, the G1 also provides a wider range of adjustments than your typical DSLR, with the high-contrast Dynamic B&W setting providing a very different look than the flat, lifeless black-and-whites typical from an in-camera monochrome mode.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1

Of course, for those who prefer to take complete control of the processing of their images post-shot, the G1 offers raw shooting as well. At the time of this writing, however, the most current version of Adobe's raw converter (Camera Raw 5.1) has yet to provide Photoshop/Lightroom support for the G1's files. Hence, most users will have to either work their raw files through the G1's supplied SilkyPix conversion software or twiddle their thumbs until updates for third-party conversion utilities catch up.

White Balance
Consistent white balance, whether using the auto or preset settings, is a work in progress for the Lumix line, and the G1 shows the putrid brown/tan cast using auto settings under incandescent light that we're used to with the company's point-and-shoots.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1
Auto White Balance, 3200K incandescent light

While incandescent light is our primary "torture test" for auto white balance systems, we found the G1's system to struggle mightily at times under a range of mixed lighting conditions and fluorescent lights as well. The presets aren't always consistent either, with the tungsten setting failing to completely balance out warm tones in the rest of our studio tests. Panasonic offers a two-axis fine-tuning slider for white balance, and in our experience, it would be a good idea to tweak settings often as lighting changes (or shoot raw and fix later).

Sensitivity and Noise
With a full-size Four Thirds format sensor under the hood, we expected noise levels from the G1 at high ISOs to effectively trounce anything from a small-sensor compact with comparable resolution. With a sensitivity range that extends all the way to ISO 3200, the G1 is also competitive with entry-level DSLRs in terms of low light capabilities on paper at least. The addition of Intelligent ISO and auto sensitivity limit functions from Panasonic's point-and-shoots also makes it easy to shoot with a flexible auto ISO setting up to whatever cap you're comfortable with: the system can be configured to limit the auto sensitivity range to ISO 200 and below, extend it all the way up to ISO 1600, or use any whole-stop sensitivity between these two as the maximum value in one of the auto ISO modes.

With default output options selected, the G1 yields the following results.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1
ISO 100
Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1
ISO 100, 100% crop
Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1
ISO 200
Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1
ISO 200, 100% crop
Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1
ISO 400
Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1
ISO 400, 100% crop
Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1
ISO 800
Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1
ISO 800, 100% crop
Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1
ISO 1600
Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1
ISO 1600, 100% crop
Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1
ISO 3200
Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1
ISO 3200, 100% crop

True to form, the G1 shows practically no discernible noise at its lowest settings, and very little even at ISO 400. ISO 800 isn't perfectly clean, but noise reduction doesn't begin softening up details aggressively until ISO 1600. Splotchiness increases exponentially beyond ISO 800, and ISO 3200 is unquestionably noisy by objective standards – appreciably noisier than what we've come to expect from the current crop of super-clean APS-C sized sensors. At the same time, assuming you stay away from pushed exposures or solid fields of dark color, the camera's default JPEG processing yields a high-sensitivity image that shows mostly fine grain like you'd see from high speed film rather than patches of intrusive color noise.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1
ISO 3200

Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1
ISO 3200, 100% crop

With more resolution in the same space, it's hardly surprising that the G1 also isn't quite as clean at high sensitivities as Olympus's 10 megapixel Four Thirds format sensor. We've used a sample crop from the E-520 for comparison here.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1
Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1, ISO 1600, 100% crop

Olympus E-520
Olympus E-520, ISO 1600, 100% crop

The Olympus may have a slight edge here, but it also lacks the G1's extra stop of sensitivity with the latter's ISO 3200 setting. Plus, to my eye at least, the E-520 capture appears to be softened up by more aggressive noise reduction than the G1 shows. Turn the E-520's noise filtering down to low and the results are much closer.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1
Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1, ISO 1600, 100% crop

Olympus E-520
Olympus E-520, ISO 1600 (low noise filtering), 100% crop

Overall, while it's not going to challenge the best APS-C equipped DSLRs for low light performance, users moving up from compacts will still likely find the G1's much more useful high sensitivity settings a welcomed improvement over a small-sensor point-and-shoot.

Additional Sample Images

Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1 Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1
Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1 Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1
Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1 Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1
Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1 Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1
Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1 Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1


CONCLUSIONS

Nearly everyone with whom I shared my first impressions of the G1 only wanted to know one thing: "What's the auto focus like?" Having now worked with a production version of the camera, it's safe for me to say it: the G1's AF technology is truly impressive. With specially designed lenses able to get the most out of the Lumix's contrast-detection AF system, the G1 delivers a technologically mature experience in the one area of most concern for most buyers with this system. Not surprising, really, since Panasonic has been hitting good focus speed numbers with its Lumix point-and-shoots for awhile now. Overall, if there was a nagging viability question about around contrast-detection AF in an interchangeable-lens camera before now, the general opinion around here is that it's largely been put to rest with the latest Lumix.

Not everything with the G1 is as sorted as one might like it to be, but most of my concerns (white balance, high-sensitivity noise) can be worked around without too much trouble in the course of normal shooting. Considering its target audience, my primary sticking point with the G1 is two-fold, and has little to do with the performance of the camera itself: given the potential of Micro Four Thirds, but also the "bridge camera" niche the G1 is competing in, I would have hoped for a camera that was both smaller and more cost conscious than what Panasonic delivered. Serious shooters may be turned off by the system's lens and flashgun limitations, and in light of the fact that most of the G1's competition in the entry-level DSLR space is somewhat less expensive, general consumers may find the camera's price tag hard to come to terms with.


I was excited about the Lumix G1 initially, and working with the actual product has done little to dampen this enthusiasm. If you can get past the initial sticker shock, the G1 may just offer the "best of both worlds" when it comes to SLRs and point-and-shoots.

Pros:

Cons:


SPECIFICATIONS

Sensor 12.1 megapixel (effective), 17.3x13.0mm Live MOS sensor
Lens/Zoom Micro Four Thirds lens mount (full-size Four Thirds mount with optional adapter)
LCD/Viewfinder 3.0", 460K dot TFT LCD with tilt/swivel function; high-resolution electronic viewfinder
Sensitivity ISO 100-3200
Shutter Speed 60-1/4000 seconds
Shooting Modes Intelligent Auto, Program, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, Manual, Scene, Custom
Scene Presets Portrait, Scenery, Sports, Night, Close-Up, Sunset, Party, Baby, Pets
White Balance Settings Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Shade, Halogen, Flash, White Set, Color Temperature
Metering Modes Intelligent Multiple, Center-Weighted, Spot
Focus Modes Face Detection, Focus Tracking, 23-Area, One-Area
Drive Modes Normal, Continuous, Self Timer
Flash Modes Auto, Auto/Red-Eye Reduction, Forced On, Forced On/Red-Eye Reduction, Slow Sync, Slow Sync/Red-Eye Reduction, Forced Off
Self Timer Settings
10 seconds, 10 seconds (3 shot), 2 seconds, Off
Memory Formats SD, SDHC
Internal Memory
Not Specified
File Formats JPEG, raw
Max. Image Size 4000x3000
Max. Video Size
N/A
Zoom During Video N/A
Battery Rechargeable lithium-ion, 330 shots
Connections USB 2.0, MiniHDMI, DC input
Additional Features Face Detection, Intelligent Auto mode, Venus Engine HD, three body colors, hot shoe, 3 fps continuous shooting, 23-area AF, film modes