I’ve never been a fan of the Four Thirds format. When it first was introduced I complained on these pages that it was a step in the wrong direction. We needed larger sensors, not smaller ones.
Theraison d’etrefor 4/3 was to make cameras smaller, and though the first models were somewhat smaller than their 1.5X and 1.6X competitors, it wasn’t long before Canon, Nikon and others started producing DSLRs that challenged what Olympus (primarily) was trying to do with the new format.
The problem was that once you have a prism and a mirror assembly there is a lower limit to the size that one can make a camera, even with a 2X (1/4 area) sized sensor. This challenge lead within the past year to a new generation of Four Third format cameras –Micro Four Thirds.
With M4/3 it isn’t the sensor that’s been reduced in size, its the cameras themselves. This has been done by dispensing with the whole mirror / prism mechanism, relying instead on just the rear LCD and Live View, or in some cases, including the Panasonic G1 and GH1, a built-in electronic viewfinder (EVF), and in the case of the subject of this review, the new GF1, an optional EVF.
So what is the GF1, and what makes it special? Is there anything unique about it? Does it break any new ground? What are its competition, and why should this be a camera that you consider or care about?
If you’ve been following developments in the camera industry (and if you’re reading this site, you probably do), then you’ll know that in mid-2009 Olympus made a splash with itsEP-1. Small size and sexy retro looks in a Micro Four Thirds camera with a 12MP sensor and a choice of 17mm f/2.8 or 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 collapsible lens appealed to a lot of people.
Panasonic GF1 with 45-200mm lens @ ISO 500
But it wasn’t without its problems, or its detractors. I looked at it the EP-1 when it first came out, but went away disappointed. So much so that I decided not to review it, because I really couldn’t find much to say that wouldn’t have sounded like I was out to get Olympus, or bash the product – neither of which was the case. Briefly – I found the autofocus to be primitive, the rear LCD too low-res, and the menu system confusing. I also just don’t find a camera without an eye-level viewfinder to be usable for anything except casual snapshots. Doing serious photography with a camera at arms length just isn’t my thing. Oh yes, and no built-in flash, which isn’t that big a deal for me, as I rarely use on-camera flash except for family snapshots, but I recognize that this is a feature that many people like to have in a pocket camera.
If there was nothing else in the class to benchmark it against I might have been somewhat forgiving, but the not-much-larger Panasonic GH1 offers almost DSLR speed autofocus, a very high resolution articulated LCD, superior menu structure, and a very high-res electronic viewfinder.
The only things that Olympus seemed to offer that trumped the GH1 were somewhat smaller size (though not hugely so) and in-body stabilization, (the G1 and GH1 have stabilization in their lenses, though not all lenses).
Panasonic GF1 with Lumix 20mm f1.7 @ ISO 100
No sooner had the Olympus EP-1 been introduced than Panasonic announced the GF1, a direct competitor, though it would be some months till it would actually become available. The GF1 trumps the EP-1 in several areas, including much superior autofocus, a much higher resolution rear LCD, superior menu interface, and the availability of an optional electronic viewfinder. Oh yes, and a "pancake" 20mm (40mm equivalent) f/1.7 lens as part of a kit with the body. This compares with the more than a stop slower 17mm f/2.8 lens on the EP-1. Flash? Yes, a clever little pop-up unit that does the job when shooting family snaps.
Finally – a serious small camera that has a large sensor, with decent image quality at up to about ISO 1000, along with interchangeable lenses. Add to this an EVF, for folks like me that dislike being forced to shoot with a camera held away from ones eye, and you just might have a winner.
It needs to be added to this somewhat rambling preamble, that when it comes to large sensor pocket cameras, the field, if not exactly getting crowded, is starting to at least have a few entries. The Sigma DP1 was the first, and had the field to itself for quite some time. If we discount the G1 and GH1 as being a bit larger than the category should permit, the Olympus E-P1 was the second major entry, and the GF1 the third. Leica’s just announced X1 will also be a contender by year’s end, and Samsung is an announced entrant as well, though little is known of what it might be like.
But all of these, besides the E-P1, are fixed lens cameras, and one could therefore argue that they therefore lack the versatility that interchangeable lenses offers. I am of the school that is looking for the smallest possible camera with a large(ish) low(ish) noise sensor, an eye level viewfinder and interchangeable lenses. That leaves us, at least by this definition, with a field of one – the new Panasonic GF1.
Of course this is all sophistry. One can define things in such a way that the outcome is predetermined, but no matter how you slice it when it comes to the basic definition – small size camera with a large sensor, the GF1 is a contender, and when you figure the additional benefits, it looks like a great offering. But, is it?
Panasonic GF1 with Lumix 20mm f1.7 @ ISO 160
I was fortunate to receive a GF1 for testing along with the 20mm f/1.7 lens just a couple of days before I left for Paris on a vacation with my wife in mid-September. This would of itself have been fun, except that I also had just acquired a Leica M9 and was eager to use it on the trip as well. I therefore feared that I might neglect the GF1 as a consequence.
I didn’t, because the GF1 turned out to be an excellent shooting companion during an urban vacation such as this. There were numerous times when even the petite M9 was a bit more than I wished to carry, such as when going to the opera, or out for an evening stroll along the Seine. With the shoulder strap removed and a small wrist strap attached the GF1 and 20mm, while not pocketable the way a smaller digicam would have been, was no hindrance, and allowed for getting some shots which otherwise would have escaped or not been of as high image quality.
I’m not going to list all of the camera’s features. These are easily found on thePanasonic web siteand on the usual camera review web site. And, since the GF1 is in many ways just a slightly truncated version of theGH1, whichI reviewed herejust a few months ago, my suggestion is that if you have not already done so you read that review to get a general feeling for what the breed is all about. Performance aspects such as IQ and noise are very similar.
Indeed the GF1 can be visualized as a GH1 without the EVF and flash hump, and without the right side grip. There are other subtractions, such as having a fixed LCD rather than the beautifully articulated LCD of the GH1. Video mode is restricted to 720P mode rather than 1080i. That’s about it. Smaller size, lower price and a few less features.
The handling of the GF1 is very straightforward. The top-mounted mode dial is nicely detented and won’t move out of place accidentally, as so many often do. The On-Off switch is located just behind the shutter release, and just to its left is a dedicated video activation button. This is a bit small and too close to the edge to be pressed comfortably, but at least it won’t be confused with the main shutter release.
Shooting speed is controlled with a lever surrounding the mode dial and has settings for single frame, continuous, bracketing and self timer.
The rear LCD is very bright and sharp, and features Panasonic’s excellent menu system, a model of clarity. But, the same huge flaw exists as on the G1 and GH1, and that is with regard to the My Menu section. Instead of allowing you to choose which items you’d like to populate this menu with, it does so automatically. In other words, it contains the last five menu items that you selected, not the five that you’d like to be there. I can’t imagine anyone except an engineer thinking that this was a good idea. Panasonic – please ask real photographers about design decisions like this in future.
Panasonic GF1 with 45-200mm lens @ ISO 100
LVF1 Electronic Viewfinder
Where Panasonic has trumped the Olympus EP-1 is in recognizing that the type of photographer that might be interested in a relatively large sensor compact camera with interchangeable lenses is also likely not to be happy with just an arm’s length LCD for composition and shooting. The GF1 accepts a small electronic viewfinder accessory called the LVF1, which to my mind elevates the camera to a separate class.
Now, Panasonic did not invent this concept. The Ricoh GX100 and GX200 both offered a similar device, and the one from Panasonic is similar in design and performance to that from Ricoh. That is, it’s "OK", but not great. The LVF1 viewfinder is similar to that which one sees on so-called crossover cameras – you know, the superzooms that have both EVFs and LCDs.
The design of the LVF1 is otherwise quite good, with a rubberized surround to protect ones glasses, and also a diopter adjustment. I also very much liked the button on its right side that allows switching between the EVF and the LCD. On the GH1 this is also automated with an eye sensor, but the button on the LVF1 is very easily reached with the index finger and does the job.
I was less happy with the fact that the viewfinder doesn’t lock into position. This means that it’s all too easy for it to be accidentally detached, especially when taking it in and out of a coat pocket or bag.
The easiest way to summarize this accessory EVF is that it doesn’t hold a candle to the industry leading EVF on the G1 and GH1. But, it works, and is a whole lot better than not having one at all. The US price is $200, which is pretty expensive for what it is, but I still feel that it’s almost a must-have if you’re going to be considering using a GF1 for anything more than snapshots.
In a very clever bit of compact design Panasonic has managed to build a pop-up flash into the top plate of the GF1. Though it’s not that high powered it will do the job for snapshot applications.
Lumix 20mm f/1.7
One of the reasons why I was comfortable going out shooting at night with the GF1 was the fact that it came with the new 20mm f/1.7 lens (40mm equivalent). If I’d been stuck with an f/2.8, or worse yet an f/4 lens, I would have reached for the M9 with a 50mm Summilux f/1.4 instead, but the Lumix f/1.7 turned out to be an exceptionally good lens in addition to being fast. And at 40mm equivalence it is nicely positioned between the classic 35mm and 50mm focal lengths for candid shooting at fast apertures.
It’s of the so-called "pancake" design, and it’s size is totally in keeping with that of the GF1. In print sizes up to about 11X17" I found that it held up quite nicely against casual shots taken at the same time with a $3,600 Leica 50mm f/1.4 Summilux. No, not as good as – but very nice, and for $400 it offers excellent value for anyone shooting with a M4/3 camera, either one from Panasonic or Olympus.
One thing that I should point out about using this lens on the GF1 is that in Program mode the system seems to be heavily biased toward using the lens wide open. My guess that this is to compensate for the fact that it does not have stabilization, nor does the camera itself.
Panasonic GF1 with Lumix 20mm f1.7 @ ISO 800
As a Leica M Backup
Back when I first tested the Panasonic GH1 I also acquired a Leica M lens adaptor for it. Because of the short back focus distance on M4/3 cameras just about any lens can be used, and the Leica M lenses are small and of the highest quality. Of course you have no AF, but if you’re an M user that’s no hardship.
Working in Paris for the week with both the M9 and the GF1 it occurred to me that the little Pany would make a great backup camera for an M8 or M9 Leica. At well under $1,000 it is a quite inexpensive backup body to have along. My only regret is that the GF1 and all Panasonic M4/3 models do not have built-in Image Stabilization, as this would be a very welcome addition since the focal length of M lenses is doubled when used. For this reason I’m quite looking forward to seeing what Olympus’ inevitable EP-2 is going to be like. If they can address some of the EP-1’s failings it may, because of its built-in stabilization, in fact be a better back-up body for a Leica M user than the GF1.
The Bottom Line
In the final analysis what we come down to is that the GF1 is likely the best of breed at the moment, but not a panacea for someone looking for a semi-pocketable large sensor camera. When combined with the LVF1 electronic viewfinder the camera starts to have an overall profile close to that of the GH1, but gives up that camera’s state-of-the-art EVF and articulated LCD, as well as 1920X1080 HD video capability.
Of course the GH1 is also more expensive, and the great little 20mm f/1.7 lens will have to be bought separately, so these are the trade-offs that will have to be made. If one is happy shooting with just the rear LCD then the GF1 does the job, and does it well. If you already own a G1 or GH1 then I don’t think that there’s a compelling case for the GF1, though the 20mm f/1.7 lens is a honey. Fortunately it can be purchased seperately.
If you currently are looking for a small interchangable lens camera with EVF capability then the the GF1 may well be the best choice currently available.