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panasonic GF1 review  
PANASONIC GF-1 REVIEW
By Vandit Kalia
November 2009

NOTE - This review has been put online without any photos right now, as I am on the road and a little more crunched for time than expected. This will be remedied by Dec 5.

I have always been a big fan of compact cameras. To me, there is something inherently pleasing about working with a limited choice of focal lengths - by eliminating other choices, I can focus solely on composition and the aesthetic elements of an image. Plus, a compact camera is easy to carry all day - and when my shoulder isn't aching from lugging a big DSLR and 3-4 L lenses, I am in a lot more receptive frame of mind for spotting a good photo opportunity.

Now, there are a lot of areas where you need the heavy artillery. Wildlife and underwater, to name two. However, for something like street photography, where seeing the "decisive moment" is far more important than a vast array of lenses, a simple standard zoom covering 24/28mm to 70-100mm (in 35mm terms) is more than sufficient. Even a standard 35-50mm prime works quite well.

Lastly, when you are carrying a small camera, you don't stand out as much - and so can work unobserved and document natural, unaffected behavior. When I shoot with a compact, no one pays any attention to me - I'm just another person, possibly a tourist, snapping away. Pull out a gripped 5D2 and a 70-200/4, and everyone stops to stare. That pretty much ruins spontaneous photography.

As such, I have gone through a series of compacts - starting with an Olympus 3030 back in 2000, to the Canon G6, then the Panasonic LX-1, G9 and most recently, the G10. I've been especially fond of the LX-1 - some of my best street shots (eg, this Darjeeling gallery) have been with this camera. However, like all compacts, it is plagued by 2 problems: one, small, noisy sensor and limited depth-of-field control.

I've always lusted for a compact with interchangeable lenses - the digital Leica M almost got me, but for a couple of things. First, I wanted a modern camera, not one which tried to imitate something from decades past. I consider it silly to build a modern camera that deliberately eschews some of the benefits of modern technology. Second, the Leica was just too hard to justifiy from a price point of view, especially as most of my photographic income comes from nature photography, not street.

The release of the Micro Four Thirds system got me to perk my ears up big-time, but the first camera was not quite there. It was basically a slightly smaller DSLR body, and not enough of a size differential to really be worth considering. Then came the Olympus EP-1, and I was about to go out and buy it when Panasonic released the GF-1 - this was what I was looking for: a compact-sized body, with interchangeable lenses.

After a lot of searching, I finally found this body in one store in Singapore and ended up buying it, along with the 14-42 kit (which works out to 28-84 in 35mm terms), the 20mm pancake lens and the optical viewfinder.

My planned usage for this camera was as a compact camera that I could take when I travel, both for non-photographic trips as well as photo-specific trips, and still get photos that were technically good enough for selling, both to my stock agency and for direct sales. This was not meant to replace my Canon system, but to supplement it.

I have been playing around with this camera for a couple of weeks, and the following are my impressions, broken down by features, usability and image quality.

FEATURES

To me, the main camera features I care about are the ones that affect my ability to take sharp, well-exposed images. So let's see what useful stuff this camera system has/lacks:

  • Image stabilization - unlike the Oly, the Panasonic does NOT have in-body stabilization. The kit lens, however, does have Panasonic's optical stabilizer built into it. Whether that is preferable depends on which side of the body vs lens stabilization debate you happen to fall in. For my regular DSLR system, I prefer in-lens stabilization. For this compact system, I would have prefered in-body stabilization. Still, having it on the kit lens is nice, and the 20/1.7 pancake is pretty fast as is, so unless you do a lot of night shooting, it should be sufficient for most needs. There are 2 IS modes, as with other Panasonic camera, and to this day, I haven't figured out which is better when. I just set it to Mode 1 and shoot, and it works well enough.
  • Moveable AF point - this is a neat feature for DSLR users. Most compact cameras have it as well, but it is nice to see it on a "serious" camera. Basically, you can move the AF point to exactly where you want it to be. Is it essential? Not really, as for most situations, lock and recompose is a lot faster (and please do not quote the Chuck Westfall article - in the real world, lock'n'recompose works just fine and has done so for a couple of decades). However, if you are going to be following an object and know where you'd like it to be in the frame, this is a really nice way to ensure that you are AFing on the right area
  • Manual / Single Shot / Continuous AF - I have not tested the Continuous AF mode on anything more challenging than a moving person: it worked well enough there, but wasn't as snappy as Canon USM - so I am not sure how well it would work for tracking fast-moving objects. When I upload the images, I will update this section. But for my use, the Continuous AF is sufficient, which is all I need. Single Shot works the way it works and is quite fast; in Manual Focus mode, the camera automatically zooms in the LCD display, which helps with focusing accuracy. However, after being used to the bright optical displays of DSLRs, I find electronic viewfinders and LCDs to be laughably pathetic when it comes to manual focus. So I tried this once or twice, and then ignored it.
  • Grid Display - I like this. Due to an eye injury, I have always struggled with keeping horizons level. The switchable grid display is really neat (and I am very happy Canon finally put it in their 7D, which is the best DSLR body I have used to date).
  • A / P / S / M modes - Standard fare.
  • Super-imposed live histogram - this is something I have never missed on a DSLR, because with an optical finder, your eye sees the scene for what it really is and so, with a little experience, you can learn how to adjust the exposure. With an LCD screen, you are being limited by the resolution and dynamic range of the display. So judging by eye doesn't work so well when it comes to calculating exposure. The super-imposed live histogram is really handy here.
  • Multiple metering modes - to be honest, I have not checked anything except the evaluative / matrix mode (or whatever Panasonic calls their variation of this). With that and a super-imposed histogram, I dont really need to ever switch metering modes. But I bet they'll work the way they are supposed to - provided the user knows what to do with them. Comparing or evaluting metering modes is the most pointless exercise possible when it comes to digital cameras - I put this section in only to get this point across! :)
  • Add-on electronic viewfinder - ok, let me state this: I like good optical TTL viewfinders of DSLRs. I think they are the best way to view a scene before photographing it. Failing that, I can live with LCD-only displays on digital compacts. I dont see why reviewers cry whenever camera manufacturers omit those crappy optical viewfinders on compacts - those are useless and I'd much rather hold the camera out at arm's length and compose properly, than use those hopeless optical viewfinders. But for a "stealth" camera, it is nice to be able to look through a finder. By eliminating other distractions, you can really "focus" on the image, so to speak. Panasonic has a feloniously-expensive add-on EVF that attaches to the screen. It is heinously expensive (as mentioned), it has lousy resolution and is pretty much useless at judging focus - where it hits paydirt is in the fact that it can be rotated.. so you can look down on the camera (like the TLRs of yore) or hold it up to your eye like a normal DSLR. This is great - more on this later, in the Usability section.
  • Hi-def video - apparently, nowadays it is an essential feature. Someday, I may even use it.

The camera has various other features and functions I don't care about, such as scene modes, flash control, first/second curtain sync, etc. You can also shoot RAW + JPEG, or just RAW. Pretty standard stuff there. DPReview is likely to have a full listing of all these features, if you so care.

USABILITY

To me, this is the most important function of a camera. People on forums obsess about front/rear focus, detail at 100%, etc. etc. All of this is meaningless if your camera cannot be customized to meet your needs, or if you are unable to change the settings in a hurry and shoot with the parameters exactly the way you want them to be.

Here, the Panasonic GF-1 is a bit of a mixed bag. I really liked the interface of the Panasonic LX-1 compact - it was intuitive and let you readily access the few main parameters you'd want to adjust while shooting: aperture/shutter, exposure compensation, ISO and WB.

On the GF-1, changing exposure is easy. I shoot mainly in aperture priority, and turning the rear dial changes the aperture - pressing it once then allows you to adjust the exposure compensation. Easy enough. I think a front dial (near the shutter button, ala Canon, or even on the front, ala Nikon) is a little more ergonomic, especially for people with longer fingers, but this works well enough.

Changing ISO, on the other hand, is a lot clunkier. There is a quick menu button and pressing this allows the user to change a lot of paramters, all of which are visible on the LCV or the optional EVF. That is all well and good, except that there is a huge amount of choice - and the user has to scroll through them, press the OK button to select the one parameter s/he wants to adjust and then use the "<" and ">" buttons to modify it. Takes time. If this is your only camera, I suppose you can get used to it soon enough, but as someone for whom this is an alternate system, I find this relatively slow and clunky. Fewer options here would have been better - or at the very least, having all the options in one vertical line on the side, like the Quick Menu you can access on Canon compacts by pressing the FUNCTION button. On the GF-1, the parameters are both on top and the bottom of the display.

This also applies to other functions, like WB, etc.

You can set the camera such that the commonly used functions can be accessed by using the arrow keys on the rear on the camera, but in that case, you can no longer simply use those arrow keys to move the AF point around - and I like being able to adjust the AF point directly, without having to press any other buttons.

There is a dial to select the AF mode (woohoo) and buttons to lock focus/exposure. With this camera, I have not bothered with de-linking autofocus and shutter activation, as I do with all my DSLRs. Reason being, I am rarely going to be shooting fast-moving action with it, so it is not needed.

The optional EVF has one big thing going for it - it can rotate and be used vertically, horizontally or any angle in between. This makes the camera great for stealth shooting. Look down on the camera and pretend to fiddle with it, and take a shot - voila. Or get creative with camera positioning. To me, this feature alone justifies putting up with the lousy resolution, limited dynamic range and high price of that EVF. Ultimately, I dont really evaluate images on the camera LCD, so resolution is not so important; the live histogram takes care of the limited DR issues - and the tiltable EVF gives me more options for shooting. Well done, Panasonic.

The EVF is switchable via a button on the side. There is also a dial here for diopter adjustment - this gets moved a little too easily for my liking. Also, if you use the EVF to shoot, the image review also happens on the EVF. That isn't too smart. I'd like to review the image on the rear LCD, and use the EVF for composition only(looking at my precious photos on that EVF just makes me want to cry). Right now, if you want to chimp, you have to shoot, press the EVF/LCD button to toggle to the LCD, hit the PLAY button to get the image on the LCD screen, review, then hit the EVF/LCD button again to toggle back to the EVF and shoot. Really, who thought this was a good idea?

In summary, the camera is acceptable - but not much more - when it comes to ergonomics. At this point, the old-timers can chime in and say that this is what happens when I spurn the simplicity of the Leica digital rangefinders - to that, I say rubbish. It is possible to design a camera with modern features AND a better user interface.

To be fair and put it in perspective, I am stating my initial impressions which are based on years of fondling Canon DSLRs, With practice, I will probably learn to work around it, but it is not likely to become as seamless an experience for me as handling a Canon body.

IMAGE QUALITY

Right, this is where my street cred as a reviewer gets shot to pieces. I was hoping to work on some photos and put them here by the end of November, but was unable to get the time to do so. I don't want to post test shots, so I have set aside some time on Dec 3 to do a mini photo project, and will post the results from it here by the 5th,

Anyway, until that happens, no images yet. There are plenty of other images on the web for you to look at and generally speaking, the image quality of this system is certainly very good. I am not big on lens testing or pixel peeping, so I will leave that for DPReview and others that specialize in that field.

What I will post are some comparisons between high ISO shots from the GF-1 and the Canon 7D, and also a comparison between shots taken with the GF-1 and an APS-C body with a standard lens. The idea is to see how a GF-1 system compares to a similarly prices "traditional" DSLR rig.

SUMMARY

Well, no summary is complete until the image testing has been done. However, I think it is safe to assume that the image quality of the camera is a given.

My general feeling about this camera is as follows: if you don't need a compact camera, stick to a traditional DSLR. The optical viewfinder and faster AF make them more versatile. Plus, you get a lot more for your money there - you are paying a significant premium for "compact" here.

However, if you need a compact camera with inter-changeable lenses, comparing this to a traditional DSLR is pointless. If you needed a flat-bladed screwdriver, would you compare it to a hex wrench? No. You'd compare it to another flat-bladed screwdriver. In this case, an Olympus EP-1. Since I don't own that (too many horror stories about its poor AF performance), I cannot do that comparison. I can only speak for this camera by itself.

It is a good, well-featured camera with a few niggles. If you are not extensively married to one particular system, you will probably get used to it in a hurry. If you are, expect an adjustment period while your brain re-wires itself to perform tasks that previously were second nature to you.

But in the end, if you need a lightweight camera with a large sensor and all the benefits that brings, along with all the pros of inter-changeable lenses, this is an excellent option. None of the faults are deal-breakers, and the benefits are huge. To put my money where my mouth is - I am leading a Culture/Street/People photography tour next month, and this camera is going to be my weapon of choice for large portions of that trip.

 

 

 
     

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