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Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF2 Review
by Jim Keenan -  12/27/2010

After partnering with Olympus on the development of the Micro Four Thirds System standard (an offshoot of the Kodak/Olympus Four Thirds System), Panasonic followed Olympus into the mirrorless/interchangeable lens class of compact digital cameras with 2009's Lumix DMC-GF1. The new genre of camera mated physically larger, more DSLR-like sensors into bodies resembling a large compact point and shoot, with the ability to change lenses like a DSLR while eliminating its bulky mirror assembly.

Panasonic Lumix GF2


Since then, Samsung and Sony have joined the club, and barring some unforeseen event Nikon is expected to enter the market niche as well. But while Nikon (and presumably Canon) haven't made their presence known yet, Panasonic is back at the table with the Lumix GF2, a slightly more compact and lighter model that at a quick glance can easily be mistaken for the GF1 which still appears on Panasonic USA's website at this writing. Scheduled to reach market in January 2011, the GF2 is available in kit form with either a 14mm f/2.5 prime lens or a 14-42mm stabilized zoom; the former is our review unit.

Here's the field of view afforded by the 14mm.

Panasonic GF2 Sample Image

Panasonic touts the new camera as being 19% smaller and 7% lighter than the GF1, and this amounts to about a 1/4 inch reduction in width, and about half that in height and depth. Weight savings (body only) equal about an ounce. Panasonic advertised the GF1 as the smallest and lightest camera of its type in the world at the time of its introduction; that title has now passed to the GF2.

The GF2 offers some modest upgrades over the GF1 - notably a 1080 HD video capability in the AVCHD format, touch control and a new user interface, and the ability to make use of Panasonic's new 3D lens, a 12mm f/12 wide angle. A Venus Engine FHD processing system takes over for the Venus Engine HD of the earlier camera and adds a stop on the high end of the ISO sensitivity range, now covering 100 to 6400. Scene modes and color presets increase by one (to 17 and 8, respectively).

Panasonic Lumix GF2

Other features such as Panasonic's signature iA (intelligent Auto) automatic shooting mode, and 1 area, 23 area, face detection or auto tracking autofocus options are carried over. Resolution remains at 12.1 megapixels on the same physical-sized sensor (17.3 x 13mm) as the top Olympus DSLR, the E-5. There is no internal memory but the camera accepts SD/SDHC/SDXC memory media. Panasonic includes lens and body caps, a lithium-ion battery and charger, AV and USB cables, hot shoe cover, shoulder strap, battery case and stylus pen with each camera.

A lot that's familiar, a few things that aren't - let's see what the changes bring to what was a very nice starting point for Panasonic with the GF1.

BUILD AND DESIGN
As already mentioned, the GF2 is slightly downsized from the GF1, but you've still got a hand-sized, slightly rounded rectangular body that will strain a shirt pocket but tuck fairly decently into a jacket, at least with the 14mm wide angle lens. The 14mm adds about an inch of depth to the camera body, which is aluminum and looks and feels well-built.

Panasonic Lumix GF2

Ergonomics and Controls
While the rectangular body closely resembles the GF1, the GF2's raised handgrip at the right front of the body extends only about 3/4 of the way to the top, curving to the edge to provide a fairly comfortable rest for the middle finger. The thumb rest at the rear is small but raised just enough to provide a grip.

The composite material of the thumb rest is smooth and slick, like the paint on the rest of the body, but the grips and the gently rounded edges of the GF2 still provide a fairly secure-feeling one hand hold. Attaching the camera strap and having it around your neck or arm is good insurance against a drop.

Panasonic Lumix GF2

On the GF1 the AF assist lamp was located on the upper right front of the body, making it a candidate to be covered by fingers of the right hand. Panasonic has moved it to the left front on the GF2, making it a candidate to be covered by fingers of the left hand in two-handed shooting.

Gone from the back of the GF2 are the AF/MF and display buttons of the GF1 - focus choices are now set via internal menu and "display" is a touch screen function in the new interface. The AF/AE lock button is also missing, and the net loss of three buttons results in a simpler, cleaner camera back with only playback and quick menu/function buttons in addition to the cursor and menu/set buttons incorporated into a single control.

Panasonic Lumix GF2

With the touch screen/new interface being arguably the most significant change from the GF1 we'll spend a bit more time than usual going over this aspect of the GF2's personality. With the camera powered on we get the basic shooting screen (in this case with the camera set for aperture priority and with the histogram enabled via internal menu) displaying a range of camera settings.

Panasonic GF2 Sample Image

Touching the "display" icon on the screen clears off the shooting info for a clearer view for both image composition and the designated focus point.

Panasonic Lumix GF2

Touching the focus point presents a size adjustment scale - you can either touch the scale at the size point you'd like or touch-and-drag it to the point. You can also reposition the focus point within the frame for more precise focus on important features of the scene. Focus point size is set by touch; position may be via touch or scrolling with the cursor buttons.

Panasonic Lumix GF2 Panasonic Lumix GF2
Panasonic Lumix GF2

The shutter may be released by touch if you enable this feature via the icon found on the shooting screen just above the display icon. Enabling turns the icon yellow and removes the small "x" that designates the feature as disabled.

Panasonic Lumix GF2

Touching the screen at any point now shifts the focus point to the spot you touch and the camera trips the shutter once focus is acquired. Here are shots captured by touch with the focus point established on the car grill and shrubs across the street, respectively.

Panasonic Lumix GF2 Panasonic Lumix GF2

From the original shooting screen, touching the "A" aperture priority shooting icon displays the "REC MODE" menu with the rest of the shooting options. Another option may be selected by touch or scrolling.

Panasonic Lumix GF2

Touching "SCN" brings up the scene sub-menu, which in this case is set for "scenery." Individual scenes may be selected by touch or scrolling.

Panasonic Lumix GF2

The same holds true for the color palette or custom setting sub-menus. Pushing the "menu/set" button in the controller on the camera back brings up the menu options, which may be selected by touch or scrolling.

Panasonic Lumix GF2

We already found that some items in the "REC MODE" menu may be selected by touch or scrolling, but such is not the case for the five other menus. Once you get into any of these all subsequent selections are via scrolling. Here are the first pages of the "REC" and "CUSTOM" menus.

Panasonic Lumix GF2 Panasonic Lumix GF2

I was pleasantly surprised at the operation of the touch screen to trip the shutter - the touch required to initiate the process is light and I found it could be done without causing an undue amount of camera shake. It's not my method of choice - I'd still rather lock focus with a half push in single servo AF, recompose the shot and fire the shutter normally (with a two-hand grip to steady the camera) - but as a viable option the touch shutter was quite functional.

Menus and Modes
Having spent considerable time dealing with menu access via the touch screen interface already, I'll go on just a bit further and mention that the quick menu offers 5 shortcuts to various camera functions, and may be customized by the user to change all or some of the functions from a list of fifteen choices. Menus are quite intuitive, but can be lengthy when shooting in the manual exposure modes versus automatic: the "REC" menu for intelligent Auto is barely two pages long; for aperture priority it swells to five pages.

There are nine primary shooting modes:

Display/Viewfinder
The GF2's 3.0-inch LCD monitor has 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 electronic view finder available from Panasonic that offers 100% coverage and 202,000 dot composition, with a diopter adjustment to fit a range of eyesight. MSRP for the finder, which mounts on the flash hot shoe, is about $200 USD.

The monitor measured a peak brightness of 438 nits and contrast ratio of 433:1. Both figures are a bit on the low side: peak brightness above 500 and a contrast ratio in the 500-800:1 range are desirable levels, but not necessarily the whole story. The Nikon D7000 I recently reviewed came in at a low 334 peak brightness, but had a high (1012:1) contrast ratio and was relatively usable in bright outdoor conditions. The GF2 monitor was harder to use outside than the Nikon, and makes that optional electronic viewfinder start to look like a wise investment.

PERFORMANCE
Panasonic incorporates stabilization into their lenses, and the 14mm on our review unit wasn't stabilized. Using the old rule of thumb that for hand holding shutter speed should be the inverse of the lens focal length, that meant shooting at or faster than about 1/30th of a second with the GF2. The fairly fast f/2.5 maximum aperture of the lens helps in this regard.

Shooting Performance
The GF2 powers up quickly, taking about 0.7 seconds to provide a focus point - I was able to get off a first shot at about the 1 second mark which is essentially the same times observed with the GF1. Shutter lag is a quick 0.01 seconds and focus acquisition is at the head of the mirrorless pack at 0.34 seconds. There's a focus assist lamp that helps in dim light, and with the GF2 utilizing a contrast detection AF system like most true compacts, wide angle is generally the better performing end of the focal range spectrum for speedy AF performance.

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

Camera Time (seconds)
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF2 0.01
Olympus E-P2 0.02
Sony alpha NEX-5 0.05
Samsung NX10 0.05

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

Camera Time (seconds)
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF2 0.34
Sony alpha NEX-5 0.39
Samsung NX10 0.50
Olympus E-P2 0.89

Continuous Shooting

Camera Frames Framerate*
Olympus E-P2 12 3.5 fps
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF2 60 3.4 fps
Samsung NX10 12 3.3 fps
Sony alpha NEX-5 2.6 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, SDHC, etc.). "Frames" notes the number of captures recorded per burst before the camera stops/slows to clear the buffer.

Single shot-to-shot times ran about 1 second. Continuous shooting rates with large, fine quality JPEGS ran 3 fps for me in the field, a bit less than the 3.2 fps advertised rate. The studio shoot generated a 3.4 fps rate. The GF2 was content to rattle off shots at high speed well past the 60 consecutive shot point where I started to lose interest in the outcome. Panasonic doesn't list a number for continuous JPEG captures at high speed (RAW is 7), but based on our experience the GF2 looks to be good for at least 60.

There's a brief blackout after the first capture in continuous shooting modes and the camera is always one shot behind on the display, so panning with moving subjects can involve some anticipation on your part. But as I found with the GF1, the GF2 is one of the easier non-DSLR cameras to use while tracking moving subjects. The GF2 proved to be pretty good at holding focus on movers, including this sequence of our local commuter train shot in high speed continuous mode.

Panasonic Lumix GF2 Panasonic Lumix GF2
Panasonic Lumix GF2 Panasonic Lumix GF2

Subjects moving across the field of view are an easier exercise for a camera AF system to track than one approaching or moving away since the relative distance to the camera changes more rapidly in the latter situation. The GF2 handled the train pretty well with AF set for single point, continuous AF, but there's also an AF tracking mode for moving subjects that allows you to designate the subject for the focus point via touch, and the camera then holds focus on this subject if it moves in the field of view. The inherent greater depth of field found in wide angle lenses helps as well, but the train was travelling about 30 MPH so DOF alone can't account for fairly sharp captures in the sequence.

The built-in flash on the GF2 has a guide number of 6 meters at 100 ISO (same as the GF1) - this equates to a range of just under 8 feet at maximum aperture with our 14mm kit lens. Flash recycle times were in the 4.5 second range with partial discharges and ran up to about 4.75 seconds with what appeared to be full discharges.

Lens Performance
The 14mm Lumix lens features a fast f/2.5 maximum aperture and is light and compact. That 14mm sounds like serious wide-angle coverage, but most digitals, and particularly cameras with the Four Thirds or Micro Four Thirds sensors with their 2x crop factors turn a wide angle into a less wide angle. That wide sounding 14mm actually shoots at a much more pedestrian 28mm (in 35mm equivalents) on the GF2. Still wide, but more ho-hum wide than gee-whiz wide. The flip side of this is Four Thirds/Micro Four Thirds cameras give telephoto shooters an extra chunk of focal length when they're trying to get "closer" to subjects via telephoto - their strength lies in long lenses rather than wide.

Panasonic Lumix GF2

The kit lens has some barrel distortion, but sharpness is fairly good and consistent across the frame. There was some chromatic aberration (purple fringing) present at high magnifications in some high contrast boundary areas, but the effect is fairly well controlled and hard to see in most cases.

The GF2 is compatible with lenses built to the Micro Four Thirds standard. These include Lumix branded lenses along with Olympus, Cosina and the Leica DG Macro Elmarit. Four Thirds lenses (including Leica, Olympus and Sigma) may be utilized by means of the MA1 adapter; there are MA2M and MA3R adapters for Leica M and R lenses, respectively. Leica M and R lenses are manual focus; autofocus functions with Four Thirds lenses may not be compatible in older lenses. Leica adapters run about $250 each; the Four Thirds adapter is about $170.

While the kit lens isn't overly wide and certainly isn't long, its fast maximum aperture makes it a fine candidate for night sky photography. Night sky shots typically involve a wide angle lens of 24mm or wider shot wide open in manual exposure for a 15 or 20 second exposure and elevated ISO sensitivity to bring out stars and other details in the night sky. The more dramatic shots typically have a bit of terrestrial landscape or detail to add interest. The key to being successful involves getting the lens set to focus at infinity, then taping the focus ring at that point so it doesn't change, and finally shooting the camera with manual focus so that AF doesn't change your lens setting.

The 15 or 20 second exposure helps minimize star trails and keep them as points of light, and you control the brightness of the scene with ISO sensitivity. Make sure you get your lens set by focusing on a distant subject before it gets dark - after the sun goes down the stars are much too dim in the monitor (or even the best DSLR viewfinder) to use for focus purposes. Needless to say a sturdy tripod and firing the shutter by remote or self timer are vital pieces of the puzzle. Here are the shots as they came out of the camera, and after post processing for noise reduction with NIK Define2 noise reduction software. I "painted" the hillside with a red LED flashlight during the exposure, and if you look closely at the full sky featuring Orion, the fuzzy Orion nebula is visible about midway down the "sword."

Panasonic GF2 Sample Image
Original

Panasonic GF2 Sample Image
Post-processed for noise reduction

Panasonic Lumix GF2
Original
Panasonic Lumix GF2
Post-processed

Battery life is listed as a disappointing 320 images with the 14mm lens (and an even worse 300 with the 14-42), down a bit from the GF1. Panasonic has chosen to go with a less-powerful battery (7.3 watt hour versus 9 watt hour) in the GF2 - possibly the result of the camera body downsizing.

Video Quality
Like the GF1, video quality is a strong suit in the GF2. Initiating video capture is a simple one-button push, and the continuous AF does a pretty good job of acquiring and holding focus if you don't take the time to pre-focus with the shutter button before starting to record. The AVCHD format requires AVCHD-compatible devices for playback or viewing and is recommended for viewing on HD TVs - motion JPEG is recommended for internet and computer use. The 14mm lens covers such a wide field of view that hand holding was fairly forgiving of introducing camera shake, but folks will want to consider using a tripod for video capture with longer lenses that magnify every little shake.

Panasonic describes the GF2 sensor as a "Live MOS", but for video concerns the "mos" part is what we're interested in, with the possibility of rolling shutter effect. This is the tendency of cameras equipped with CMOS sensors to skew vertical lines during panning in video capture. The GF2 showed a bit with the 14mm lens, but the effect was largely benign unless panning speeds were unrealistically fast. Longer lenses may be expected to draw more attention to the effect.

The GF2 has a built-in stereo microphone and there is a wind cut feature for audio captures. Motion JPEG clips are limited to 2GB size (about 8 minutes and 20 seconds according to the handy "time remaining" display on the screen during capture), and "motion pictures can be recorded continuously for up to 29 minutes 59 seconds in some countries." The GF1 was listed as having a 110 minute AVCHD recording length and the United States must not be on the "some country" list as "time remaining" reads 2 hours and 1 minute at the start of AVCHD recording with the GF2.

Image Quality
No surprises here. Image quality was very good in the GF1 and there's no change with the GF2. Default color and sharpness looked good to my eyes, and this held true across a range of manual, iAuto and scene modes. There are a multitude of user inputs available in the manual shooting modes, but the GF2 came right out of the box pretty much dialed in to producing images I liked.

With a 14mm prime as our lens, the GF2 lent itself to captures of wide, sweeping vistas, or big subjects up close.

Panasonic GF2 Sample Image Panasonic GF2 Sample Image
Panasonic GF2 Sample Image Panasonic GF2 Sample Image

Big turned out to be the U.S.S. Midway, all 963 feet of her - too big for even the 14mm to get her all in one shot from the dock and park surrounding her. Named in honor of the WWII battle that saw U.S. naval aviation break the back of the Japanese navy by sinking four aircraft carriers (all of whom took part in the attack on Pearl Harbor), she was the first carrier commissioned after the end of that war. She last saw action in 1992, and now serves as a floating museum in San Diego harbor.

Panasonic GF2 Sample Image Panasonic GF2 Sample Image
Panasonic GF2 Sample Image Panasonic GF2 Sample Image

The GF2 "my color" palette has some different names than those found on the GF1, but the bottom line is they provide a range of color options for manual shooters. Here are the default setting as well as the expressive, retro, pure, elegant, cinema, monochrome, dynamic art and silhouette options. Not sure what Panasonic's thinking is on "silhouette". And I shot "pure" three times just to make sure, and it came out that way each time.

Panasonic GF2 Sample Image
Default
Panasonic GF2 Sample Image
Expressive
Panasonic GF2 Sample Image
Retro
Panasonic GF2 Sample Image
Pure
Panasonic GF2 Sample Image
Elegant
Panasonic GF2 Sample Image
Monochrome
Panasonic GF2 Sample Image
Dynamic Art
Panasonic GF2 Sample Image
Cinema
Panasonic GF2 Sample Image
Silhouette

Multi metering is the camera default and was used for all but the manual exposures (primarily the night shots) in the review. It did a good job with normally lit scenes and as is typical with many cameras could lose highlights on occasion with high contrast situations. There are center-weighted and spot metering options in the manual exposure modes.

The GF2 has an intelligent dynamic range setting (disabled as a default) to expand the camera's apparent dynamic range, but I saw little difference (both visually and in histograms) with high contrast shots I applied it to. There is also an intelligent resolution setting (also off by default) that applies enhanced levels of sharpening and noise reduction to images, but the default shots out of the GF2 at low ISO were so good I found no need to enable it.

Auto white balance was used for most of the shots in the review and worked well in most cases. There are also daylight, cloudy, shade, halogen and flash presets, two custom settings and a 2500-10000 degree Kelvin temperature setting.

Panasonic GF2 Sample Image
Auto White Balance, 5500k fluorescent light

The GF2 picks up an additional step of ISO sensitivity, 6400, but it's probably a setting Panasonic could have left on the drawing board. ISO 100 and 200 are fairly equal, but there is already just a tiny bit of loss of fine details at 200. ISO 400 starts to pick up some noise in both light and dark areas, and 800 has both a bit more noise and loss of fine details.

Panasonic Lumix GF2
ISO 100
Panasonic GF2 Sample Image
ISO 100, 100% crop
Panasonic Lumix GF2
ISO 200
Panasonic GF2 Sample Image
ISO 200, 100% crop
Panasonic Lumix GF2
ISO 400
Panasonic GF2 Sample Image
ISO 400, 100% crop
Panasonic Lumix GF2
ISO 800
Panasonic GF2 Sample Image
ISO 800, 100% crop
Panasonic Lumix GF2
ISO 1600
Panasonic GF2 Sample Image
ISO 1600, 100% crop
Panasonic GF2 Sample Image
ISO 3200
Panasonic GF2 Sample Image
ISO 3200, 100% crop
Panasonic GF2 Sample Image
ISO 6400
Panasonic GF2 Sample Image
ISO 6400, 100% crop

ISO 1600 takes a more significant hit in noise and fine detail loss, but the jump to 3200 is an even more dramatic increase in noise. ISO 6400 is an equally steep fall off from 3200, with noise and detail loss relegating its use to small images if nothing else will work.

Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds cameras operate at a size disadvantage with regards to noise because of their physically smaller sensors. And the GF2 has the bad luck to be the follow on camera to the Nikon D7000 review I just finished.

While not DSLRs, all the mirrorless cameras are attempting to cut into DSLR sales by offering DSLR-sized sensors (and hopefully DSLR noise performance) and interchangeable lenses on compact bodies. But things have just gotten tougher - the best APS-C sensor DSLRs have got the GF2 covered in high ISO noise performance. The D7000 (which uses a Sony sensor from the A55 that also shows up in the Pentax K-5) is ahead by 800 ISO and looks to be well over one and perhaps as much as two stops better at 6400. And the D7000 is shooting at 16 megapixel resolution versus 12 for the GF2. Still, the mirrorless cameras' overriding selling point is much better than compact performance at almost compact size, and that's a fight the DSLR can't win.

Additional Sample Images
Panasonic GF2 Sample Image Panasonic GF2 Sample Image
Panasonic GF2 Sample Image Panasonic GF2 Sample Image
Panasonic GF2 Sample Image Panasonic GF2 Sample Image
Panasonic GF2 Sample Image

CONCLUSIONS
The mirrorless/interchangeable lens class shows no sign of slowing down as Panasonic and Samsung are both introducing their second generation offerings while speculation is that Nikon is about to enter the fray.

Panasonic's GF2 represents a measured approach to upgrades over the GF1: video goes to the full HD standard, 1080i; a 3D capture capability is offered via a new 12mm 3D lens and a touch screen operation with new user interface round out the major differences in the new camera. Panasonic wisely stuck to the "if it ain't broke don't fix it" philosophy, and there wasn't anything broken on the GF1. The good image quality returns, continuous shooting rates are up a bit and the new touch screen/user interface is functional and mostly well thought-out. The new camera is even a bit smaller and lighter than the GF1, which was the world's smallest mirrorless, and shows, if nothing else, that Panasonic is willing to pursue any avenue in order to improve the breed.


I'd like them to pursue building a bit more battery capacity into the next one - the GF2 shoots even less on a single charge than the GF1, which wasn't setting the world on fire in the first place. Panasonic hasn't published an MSRP on the GF2 yet, but expect the camera and kit lens to run about what the GF1 cost, some $900. And as with the GF1, if you want the adapters to allow the use of Four Thirds or Leica lenses, those will set you back about $670 for all 3. At this point your expenditure level is such that you could be getting into a DSLR and some decent glass for the same outlay. Even forgetting the adapters, the GF2 is commanding entry level DSLR prices and that's the major decision facing folks moving up from a compact: go mirrorless or go for the top of the camera food chain.

As a long-time Nikon shooter I've been following the rumors of a mirrorless Nikon for some time now, and while it's not necessarily a camera I'd have much use for, if Nikon comes out with something as capable as the GF2 I'd be hard pressed to pass it by.

Pros:

Cons: