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Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3 Review
by Howard Creech -  7/18/2011

Panasonic surprised just about everyone in the digital imaging industry by introducing the Lumix DMC-GF3 less than six months after the debut of the GF2. The GF3 is not the GF2's replacement - the larger and slightly more complex GF2 (which is targeted primarily at photo enthusiasts) will remain in production.

Panasonic Lumix GF3


The GF3 will be Panasonic's entry-level Micro Four Thirds digital camera - aimed primarily at point-and-shoot users who want to move up to a camera that provides more control, better image quality and interchangeable lenses without any significant increase in size, weight, or operational complexity.

The GF3 was briefly the smallest and lightest Micro Four Thirds format digital camera in the world, but Sony's tiny new NEX-C3 quickly bumped it into second place. The 12 megapixel GF3 features a 17.3 x 13mm Live MOS sensor (substantially larger than most point-and-shoot sensors), a built-in pop-up flash (but no hot shoe), a 3.0-inch (460,000 pixels) touchscreen LCD and a full HD (1920 x 1080i at 60fps) movie mode.

The GF3 is remarkably easy to like - it's tiny, really easy to use, capable of producing excellent images - with very little effort on the part of the shooter, and it's stylish in an understated way. Some users, especially those graduating from zoom equipped compacts, may find the 14mm (28mm equivalent) pancake kit lens a trifle disconcerting, but they will soon learn to zoom with their feet or they can buy the Lumix 14-42mm zoom instead of (or in addition to) the 14mm pancake prime.

BUILD AND DESIGN
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:

Display/Viewfinder
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:

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.


PERFORMANCE
The Panasonic GF3's across the board performance is competitive with or better than every entry level DSLR I've used to date. Turn the camera on and it is ready to rock and roll almost immediately (and that includes the dust removal cycle). Shot-to-shot times (for single JPEG images) run from about one second without flash to about two seconds with flash. Shot to shot times will obviously be longer, but not objectionably so, when shooting RAW images.

Shooting Performance
The GF3 comes in right at the top of its class - equivalent to or faster than its competition in every timing area except Continuous Shooting where it comes in second to the class leading Olympus E-P3.

Shutter Lag (press-to-capture, pre-focused)
Camera Time (seconds)
Olympus E-P3 0.01
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3 0.01
Samsung NX10 0.05
Sony alpha NEX-5 0.05

AF Acquisition (press-to-capture, no pre-focus)
Camera Time (seconds)
Olympus E-P3 0.22
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3 0.22
Sony alpha NEX-5 0.39
Samsung NX10 0.50

Continuous Shooting
Camera Framerate*
Olympus E-P3 13.0 fps
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3 4.2 fps
Samsung NX10 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.

Image stabilization is almost ubiquitous these days, but the GF3 doesn't provide on board Sensor Shift IS, each lens is either stabilized or it isn't. The f/2.5 14mm Lumix prime that comes with the camera isn't stabilized (and it doesn't need to be), but the Panasonic Lumix G Vario f/3.5-5.6 14-42mm zoom (the other kit lens option) is MEGA OIS stabilized.

The GF3 draws its juice from a new rechargeable 7.2V/940mAh Lithium-ion battery that Panasonic claims is good for 340 exposures (with the 14mm lens). I had to charge the battery twice in eight days and while I used the camera pretty heavily I didn't shoot anywhere near 700 exposures.

Panasonic claims one of the GF3's big improvements over the GF2 is its better AF performance. The GF3 is the first Panasonic camera to utilize the new "Light Speed AF" system - The faster sensor drive speed (120 fps for the GF3 vs 60 fps for the GF2) permits faster AF. Panasonic claims the GF3's AF is actually faster than some pro level DSLRs. The GF3 features a 23-point TTL contrast detection auto-focusing system. In addition the GF3 provides single point AF, pinpoint AF, tracking AF and face detection AF modes. In single-point mode, the focus point can be moved anywhere in the image frame by dragging it on the touch-screen display. Focus modes include Single AF (S-AF), Continuous AF (C-AF) and Manual Focus (MF).

Lens Mount/Kit Lenses
The GF3 comes (in kit form) with either the Lumix f/2.5 14mm prime lens or the Lumix G Vario f/3.5-5.6 14-42mm (equivalent to 28-84mm) zoom. The GF3 can mount any Micro Four Thirds mount lens, Panasonic Four Thirds mount lenses via adapter, and "R" and "M" mount lenses from Leica via adapter. The Lumix f/2.5 14mm prime lens that came with my test camera did show some very minor corner softness, but center sharpness is impressively good.

In fact those graduating from point-and-shoots will be amazed at just how much difference there is in basic optical quality between any P&S zoom and a very good quality prime lens. Barrel distortion is well controlled and pincushion distortion is non-existent. The 14mm prime will likely to be the kit lens choice of most photography enthusiasts who will want the large maximum aperture and better image quality of the wide angle prime lens. Casual photographers graduating from P&S digicams will probably opt for the convenience of the 14-42mm zoom, even if they have to give up some image quality.

Video Quality
The GF3 records 1920 x 1080i HD video at 60 fps. The sample video that accompanies this review was shot on a blisteringly hot day in the late afternoon - the video is fluid, color correct, and the resolution is excellent.

Download Sample Video

Image Quality
Default images show very good color, balanced contrast, and impressive sharpness. Overall image quality (with the 14mm kit zoom) is dependably excellent outdoors in good light and slightly better than average indoors - although indoor images seem a bit darker than they ought to be. Shadow detail capture is better than expected and highlight detail capture is noticeably better than average.

There is some very slight chromatic aberration (purple fringing) visible at full size, but CA is remarkably well controlled with the 14mm prime lens. The GF3's intelligent auto mode is substantially better than average and makes taking very good to excellent images simple, even for beginners, but there is a slight tendency toward minor underexposure.

White Balance options include Auto mode, Daylight, Cloudy, Shade, Halogen, Flash, Custom 1 and 2, and Kelvin Temperature (2500 to 10000 K in 100K steps), but no fluorescent WB option. The GF3's auto white balance setting does a reliably good job outdoors. Indoors, the GF3 (in Auto WB mode) sometimes struggles to get difficult hues (like purple) just right. Default colors are bold and bright and just barely cooler than real world colors.

Panasonic GF3 Sample Image
Auto White Balance, 5500k fluorescent light

The GF3 provides an acceptable range of sensitivity options including Auto and user set options from ISO 160 to ISO 6400. Image noise levels are below average at all ISO settings. Images shot at lower ISOs show very low noise levels, vibrant color, sharp resolution, slightly hard native contrast, acceptable highlight detail and decent shadow detail. Visible (but very negligible) noise/graininess (at full size) begins to show at the ISO 400 setting and get progressively worse from that point upward.

Panasonic GF3 Sample Image
ISO 160
Panasonic GF3 Sample Image
ISO 160, 100% crop
Panasonic GF3 Sample Image
ISO 200
Panasonic GF3 Sample Image
ISO 200, 100% crop
Panasonic GF3 Sample Image
ISO 400
Panasonic GF3 Sample Image
ISO 400, 100% crop
Panasonic GF3 Sample Image
ISO 800
Panasonic GF3 Sample Image
ISO 800, 100% crop
Panasonic GF3 Sample Image
ISO 1600
Panasonic GF3 Sample Image
ISO 1600, 100% crop
Panasonic GF3 Sample Image
ISO 3200
Panasonic GF3 Sample Image
ISO 3200, 100% crop
Panasonic GF3 Sample Image
ISO 6400
Panasonic GF3 Sample Image
ISO 6400, 100% crop

Additional Sample Images
Panasonic GF3 Sample Image Panasonic GF3 Sample Image
Panasonic GF3 Sample Image Panasonic GF3 Sample Image
Panasonic GF3 Sample Image Panasonic GF3 Sample Image

CONCLUSIONS
Bridge cameras "bridge" the gap between two different types of camera. The GF3 tries to bridge the gap between a compact point-and-shoot and an enthusiast oriented interchangeable lens camera. Camera makers have attempted, several times, over the past fifty years, to combine the creative potential and flexibility of an interchangeable lens camera with the convenience and simplicity of a point-and-shoot. Unfortunately, their efforts usually result in a product that isn't a very good example of either camera type.

The new GF3 is the best bridge camera I've ever used. It is small enough to be pocketable (with the 14mm prime lens mounted), it is remarkably easy to use, and it is rich in the features that casual shooters love. At the same time, the GF3 can mount an impressive selection of optics and provides lots of pro-level flexibility.


The GF3 was designed to meet the needs of a remarkably broad demographic. This camera should appeal to pro and semi-pro shooters looking for a pocketable back-up camera with lots of creative potential, casual shooters looking for an easy to use interchangeable lens camera that automatically makes all exposure decisions and amateur photographers looking to move up from their point-and-shoot to something with a bit more sophistication.

Small, versatile and unobtrusive pocket cameras (with superb optics) designed to capture the decisive moment with as little fuss as possible were used to shoot many of the iconic images of the twentieth century - and they were the camera of choice for some of the greatest photographers who ever lived. The GF3 does a pretty good job of updating the straight shooters primary tool for the twenty-first century.

The GF3 is capable (with very little effort on the part of the user) of consistently and dependably delivering "pro" quality images. The GF3 successfully combines the look and P&S simplicity of a compact digicam with the larger sensor and lens interchangeability of a DSLR. To put that another way, the GF3 looks and behaves like a compact P&S digicam, but it performs like a DSLR.