Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1
At a Glance
The slimmest Micro Four-Thirds System camera yet, the industrial-looking Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1 ($900 in two kit variations as of 10/28/2009) is the most enticing non-DSLR we've seen to date. Purist and professional-level photographers may not like the absence of an optical viewfinder on the GF1, but this model otherwise brings enough to the table to make it a solid recommendation for entry-level DSLR buyers.
The GF1 records decent 720p high-definition video, offers interchangeable lenses as a DSLR does, shoots RAW format images, and gives the shooter granular control over each shot with full manual controls and modes such as aperture priority and shutter priority.
What's more, Panasonic has designed a camera that's an excellent learning tool for novice shooters: The automatic modes and scene selections on this camera are excellent, so it's easy to start with simple automatic modes and then step up to more advanced menu options later. The GF1 also addresses many shortcomings of the similarly slim and retro-stylish Olympus EP-1, another Micro Four-Thirds System camera: Auto-focus is faster, the LCD is much better, the camera has a pop-up flash, and the menu system is very intuitive.
This is Panasonic's first Micro Four-Thirds System camera that takes full advantage of the lack of a space-hogging internal prism; the GF1 is much smaller than a DSLR. But the lack of a mirror box means you don't get a through-the-lens preview of your shot via an optical viewfinder, which is the GF1's main drawback. Using the 3-inch-diagonal LCD is the only way to frame shots, and though this LCD performs well in normal lighting conditions, it's hard to see in direct sunlight. The camera does have a connector on the top for a separately-sold electronic viewfinder ($200 as of 10/28/2009), but that pricey accessory is no substitute for a through-the-lens optical view.
The GF1 is easy to use with one hand, thanks to a textured thumb rest on the back next to the rear control dial, as well as a slightly raised grip on the front. One small complaint is that the grip on the front could be a bit bigger or textured; those with bigger hands may find it hard to gain traction when holding the GF1 with one hand.
And now on to the really important stuff: how the GF1 performs when shooting stills and video. In my hands-on tests, the GF1 performed well in outdoor and brightly lit settings. With the flash enabled, a bit of vignetting, or shading off, appeared in the corners of some midrange distance shots, but all in all, the pop-up flash was strong enough to produce evenly-exposed shots.
At high ISO levels, noise didn't become visibly noticeable until about ISO 800. At ISO 1600 and 3200, images were noticeably pock-marked, and those higher ISO equivalency settings are probably useless for anything other than pitch-black settings.
Though it was more likely an effect of the lens I was using for test shots (I used the 14-45mm/F3.5-5.6 aspherical kit lens, but the DMC-GF1 is also available as a kit with a 20mm/F1.7 pancake lens), the GF1's autofocus did have problems locking in on tight macro shots. I found myself switching to manual focus for tight shots, which worked better. Other than macro scenarios, the autofocus did its job, and did it quickly.
In addition to the normal array of scene modes (21 in all, including Portrait, Fireworks, Night Portrait, Sunset, and a Baby mode that keeps track of your youngster's age and tags photos accordingly), the GF1 also has a Peripheral Defocus mode that automatically adjusts the aperture, shutter, and ISO settings for that "clear foreground, blurry background" effect. It works well, too, and sometimes even works better than using aperture priority mode
(PC World Test Center imaging evalutions are pending, and the results will be added to this review as soon as they're completed.)
In video mode, you have the choice of recording 720p high-definition video at 30 frames per second in AVCHD Lite format (AVCHD doesn't work with many lower-end video-editing programs, but the clips do upload directly to YouTube) or as motion JPEG clips. You have a choice of three bit rates when recording AVCHD clips: 17 megabits per second, 13 mbps, or 9 mbps. I shot the test videos below at 17 mbps and uploaded them to YouTube without editing or converting them.
I shot the same footage with the Lumix DMC-GF1 as I did with the Canon EOS Rebel T1i, an entry-level DSLR that shoots 1080p video, and with the second-generation Flip Video MinoHD. For each camera, I used 720p mode at 30 fps, as well as the default video settings. Click the "HD" button at the bottom right of each player to see the best-quality footage from each camera.
Video Quality Test: Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1
Video Quality Test: Canon EOS Rebel T1i
Video Quality Test: Flip Video MinoHD (Second Generation)
The GF1 didn't produce as vibrantly-colored footage as the Rebel T1i, and videos looked darker by default. However, the Lumix DMC-GF1 seemed to shoot sharper images, and colors didn't bleed or blow out as much they did with the Rebel T1i.
In low light, the differences are dramatic. While the GF1 shot darker, more subdued low-light footage, it wasn't turned into the inaccurate orange-tinted scene that the Rebel T1i produced in the same low-light setting. The pocket-sized, second-generation Flip Video MinoHD also held its own in low light when compared to both higher-end cameras.
Low Light Test: Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1
Low Light Test: Canon EOS Rebel T1i
Low Light Test: Flip Video MinoHD (Second Generation)
Unfortunately, the GF1 doesn't have the same full-HD (1920-by-1080) video-shooting capabilities as its predecessor, the Lumix DMC-GH1. For a camera of its size, however, it does a nice job with both stills and video, and its RAW-format shooting capabilities and full manual controls mean that you'll have great image controls both while you're shooting and in the retouching process.
More about the controls on this camera. Though the GF1 is like a DSLR in some ways, unlike most DSLRs, Panasonic has kept the buttons to a minimum, alleviating confusion for newbies. All camera modes are handled by a dial on the top, where you also have the shutter button, the lock-in-place power switch, and a dedicated record button for fast video shooting. The pop-up flash emerges from the top left of the camera. On the back are six buttons (playback, AF/AE lock, an auto/manual focus toggle, display options, a quick menu button, and a delete button); a second dial to control aperture and shutter controls; and a four-way directional pad for navigating on-screen menus. The four directional buttons double as one-touch access to ISO settings, white balance, autofocus tracking, and film effects. The left side of the camera has a sturdy, spring-loaded door that covers its optional remote port, HDMI-out port, and A/V out port.
The Lumix DMC-GF1 is significant as a Micro Four-Thirds camera that represents a relatively compact, sub-$1000 model that deserves consideration by any potential entry-level DSLR buyer. The combination of compact size, full manual controls, video shooting, versatility, and beginner-friendly modes makes the GF1 a near-perfect representation of the Micro Four-Thirds System's potential.