Guest Review: Panasonic GF1

Today, we have a special guest review of the Panasonic Lumix GF1 with 20/1.7 Kit by Linh from TypicalMedium Photography.  Here’s a link to the entire sample gallery for this review, whre you can download the full-sized files.  Without further ado, here’s his review:

The Panasonic GF1 is the third Micro Four Thirds (MFT) camera from Panasonic.  Its direct competition is the Olympus E-P1 which was released this past summer (and now the E-P2).  So what makes this camera oh so exciting and hard to find?  It's all about size and image quality; specifically, the size to image quality ratio.

I love my DSLR (Canon 40D).  It's fast, the images are superb, it's rugged, did I mention it's fast? But it's also gigantic.  We have pro-sumer P&S cameras like the Canon G11, Canon S90, Panasonic LX3, and Fuji 200EXR that attempt to bring better controls and better-than-ultra-compact image quality to the table.  For me, the image quality from these cameras wasn't enough.  They cost $400+ and I still can't take ISO1600 shots with decent detail.  Don't get me wrong, they do pretty well at ISO1600, but not what I want).  That leaves me with the Micro Four Thirds (m43) system and the hope of keeping the camera relatively small without skimping on the sensor.  These are my impressions and comments on Panasonic's attempt.  For technical specs and ISO comparisons, try someplace like DPReview.

Initial Reactions

I bought the GF1+20/1.7 kit because I wanted a fast compact lens.  It was a pain to find, but I eventually got one from Samy's.  Upon opening the box, I was pleasantly surprised to find the body weighed less than I had expected.  The lens looked a little like a toy with just the number '20' on it, but felt good in the hands.  Not Canon L or Sigma EX good, but not "kit" quality either [Ed: Like the E-P1’s cheap-feeling kit zoom?].  Surprisingly, the camera felt a bit front-heavy with the lens mounted.  It’s not a big concern, but it through me off for a moment.  That feeling has since subsided and I don't even notice anymore.

I will preface my next statement with this: I've seen the [higher res] 5DmkII and D300 LCDs in person.  When I turned on the GF1, I was stunned.  I seriously thought it was better than the high-res screens.  Of course it might not be true, but it's a good sign when at first glance it looks like the best LCD I've seen for a digital camera.  The only downside to the LCD is the one that plagues pretty much every LCD: bright outdoor settings.  It works OK, but it tends to get very subjective on how "OK" it is.

If you’ve picked up one of those old fixed lens rangefinders, you might feel a little nostalgic with this in hand.  I have a Canonet G-III QL17 that’s just a hair thicker.  The Canonet is actually more comfortable to hold at first grasp, but I got used to the GF1 after a day or so.  The 20/1.7 focusing has a bit of a "hum buzz" to me, but it’s not like the Tamron 17-50 buzz.  To be honest, this probably won't bother most people, but I'm a little spoiled by USM/HSM.  The shutter on the GF1 is also pretty loud for something so small.  It is a bit strange since the Canonet is so silent.  I think I psyched myself into thinking "hey, GF1 is the same size, same shutter sound!"  Don't fall into that.  The Canonet’s fixed lens incorporates a leaf shutter, which has the downside of maxing out at 1/500th.


Autofocus is big topic.  I've read posts and articles that say the GF1’s focusing speed is like that of entry level DSLRs.  I'm a bit skeptical of that claim because I recall my old 300D Digital Rebel being quicker.  I have not seen the new entry stuff though, so maybe they are slow.  The GF1’s focusing is plenty quick, just not fast action quick.  It has a neat pre-AF mode that tries to focus ahead of time while you’re moving the camera around.  However, going from one end of the AF range to the other is quite slow.  The buzz of the 20/1.7 adds to the perception of speed as well.

Focus points are pretty good, but I don't think face detect (on any system) is up to par.  By this I mean it takes a couple of tries for me to get most of the faces.  Maybe my expectations are too high on this.  Tracking mode seems to work very well though once you get a lock.  When manually picking a point, you have several focus area options--from about 1/3 of the sensor area down to a very small precise point.  The bad part is I like to use a small focus point and moving it all over the screen is tediously slow using the 4 way pad.  Tip: hit the trash/delete button to re-center and move if you need to get to the other side of the screen… or just focus and recompose.

I find manual focus override to be a bit frustrating.  With my DSLR, I generally set the rear AF-ON button to focus and the shutter button to only release.  If my lens has full time MF, I can fine tune it after AF easily and just fire away.  With the GF1, you have to keep the shutter halfway depressed, and then you can then MF override.  It feels very awkward.

In full manual mode, the MF zoom assist feature is a bit inelegant but very useful with the EVF.  The focus-by-wire also needs more than a slight touch to kick in.  It reminds me of early (or even some current) drive-by-wire cars.  The only other gripe I have is it should start the MF assist from when you're picking a focus point.  As it stands, you have to move to your focus point, hit set, and THEN focus.  That extra step breaks your flow.  If you shoot center point focus or focus and recompose, this will be a moot issue.  Overall, the whole focusing system is very usable.  I don't have an adapted lens to see how functional that is, but I'm tempted to find a cheap EOS->m43 adapter (to use my lenses from other mounts adapted to EOS).

Lastly, I use the AF lock button on my DSLR to get focus.  I can do the same with the GF1, using the AF/AE lock button.  The problem is that, if you want to re-focus, you have to hit it again to unlock focus and then hit a 3rd time to re-lock focus.  Needless to say, I will not be doing this.  Just an FYI for anyone that might happen to shoot the way I do.

Misc. Tidbits

Auto-bracketing is nice to have, but you are bound to the preset ranges the camera has defined.  You can take sets of 3, 5, or 7 shots.  Each set can either be +/-1/3 or 2/3 increments, filling out the set.  So 5*2/3 would take shots at 0, +/-2/3 and +/-1 1/3.  Unfortunately, there's no way to define your own set of 0 and +/-1ev only, for example.

Intelligent Auto mode (iA) is another feature that reviewers praise.  I personally hate it.  It has given me f1.7@1/30th nearly every time I try to use it.  Even when it changes, it seems locked wide open.  It apparently only boosts the ISO if it detects action to stop.  I have to underexpose the image by over a stop to up the shutter speed.  I wouldn't feel comfortable handing the camera to a random person and switching it to iA.  As it stands, I'm probably going to just make a custom setting for shutter priority and face detect, as usually the biggest concern when other people are using it they will shake it.  I'll just set the ISO based on the setting of the shot.  Yes, I do feel a bit stupid for not understanding iA mode.

The battery door is opened by a normal latch, and is tensioned to swing wide open when you unlock it.  Nice touch, but I don't see the need for the auto swing.  You have to manually lock it back down as it does not auto-latch shut.  The side door for the USB/HDMI out is very flimsy feeling.  It is thin, lightweight, and also pops open when lifted.  All this adds to the feeling of "OMG I could snap this off pretty easily."

Electronic View Finder / Live View Finder

One of the big questions about this camera is the $200 electronic viewfinder add-on, aka the Panasonic DMW-LVF1.  Yeah, it's expensive as hell, it has lower resolution than the G1/GH1 EVFs, and it's expensive as… oh wait, already mentioned that.  I will say it's pretty usable for MF work.  Maybe not in the really low light situations, but it’s workable.  The EVF is also a big plus for composition and seeing data onscreen (ISO, aperture, shutter, etc.) and bright sunlight shooting.  There were times when testing in sunlight that the LCD was less than OK and the EVF was gold.  Keep in mind that if you use the bordered view for the camera LCD (gives onscreen data it's own space) it will make the EVF view smaller as well.  I use this right now, and it's a little annoying when you try to MF, but I don't do it all that often.

I had a chance to use this camera at the Birchmere Music Hall when A Fine Frenzy was in town.  The EVF would have been far superior to using a blindingly bright LCD in a dark room.  Sadly, I absentmindedly left the EVF at home.  Instead, I had to rely on the AF and shoot blind. As a testament to the pretty nice AF system, it didn't really fail here.

Above pic with Silver Efex and Dfine 2.0 and some cropping

The EVF is a bit of a hassle to carry it around with the camera, and it feels kind of stupid to leave it attached because it could snap off in a bag.  I've been looking for something to hold just the GF1/20/EVF alone, but they are either too bulky or too light.  I settled on the Op/Tech D-Small Soft Pouch and I keep the EVF case attached to the neck strap.

For you glasses folks: I don't have a problem, but have a fairly weak prescription.  I've read a couple of complaints from folks with thicker glasses that found the EVF useless.  I can actually use it without my glasses pretty well too [there is a diopter adjustment]. Maybe I should get contacts.

Noise / High ISO

I don't have much to say other than I find 1600 pretty usable and 3200 workable for B&W.  Even though this was a huge factor in MFT for me, it's either acceptable or not.  Lucky for me, I really like B&W.  You can see how ISO 3200 looks in color in the following shots.  It's not pretty at 100%, but very workable if you’re not making large prints. These are all straight out of Lightroom 2.5 with hardly any adjustments:


The GF1 is a very solid feeling camera.  It feels nice and compact in your hands even though pictures make it appear to be only slightly smaller than thee G1 and GH1.  I think the grip could be a hair bigger and the wheel repositioned / resized, but it's not too bad.  The "My Menu" thing really needs to be user definable (a la Canon) instead of just a "Last 5" history.  I easily scratched the paint off the bottom when it was rubbing up against some buckles on my bag.  I understand it's my fault because I'm so used to my K1000 and Canonet, but the GF1’s paint seemed a bit too easy to scuff up.

I may have said a lot of seemingly negative things in this review, but keep in mind that I'm a damn picky person. The camera overall is awesome paired with the 20/1.7.  It's easy to stash in my messenger bag so I can bring it with me every day.  The low light performance is better than a G11 or LX3, and it’s not any more cumbersome than those cameras.  The 20mm f/1.7 lens is what makes the system for me.  To be able to get the DOF control I can get with this lightweight setup is close to perfect for my needs.  It’s nice to have other lens options available too.

Until they figure out how to cram an APS-C sensor into a camera the size of the S90 while keeping the lens quality of the 20/1.7... I will be a very very happy camper.  The Panasonic GF1 + 20/1.7 + EVF have found a new home in my bag.  It is, to put it simply, a fun camera to use.

The real question is which lens to buy next =)

Note: All sample pictures were straight from Adobe Lightroom 2.5 with very minor adjustments.  Only the A Fine Frenzy pictures were hit with Dfine 2.0 and SilverEfex.  View the gallery (with full-sized files) here.


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GF1 Madness: Adorama Cancelling 20/1.7 Kit Orders

Adorama just sent this to people who had preordered the Panasonic GF1 with 20mm f/1.7 Lens kit from them:

We have been informed by Panasonic that at this time they do not plan to offer this combination of the GF1 camera with the 20 1.7 Lens. (The camera with the 14-45 lens is in stock. We are waiting for deliveries of the 20 1.7 lens to start) Therefore, we regret to inform you that we are canceling your order. We regret any inconvenience this may have caused you, and continue to appreciate your business.

What happened here? Is this another case of Panasonic's supply troubles, or have they decided to cash in on the 20/1.7s good reviews by only selling it separately? I don't really blame Adorama here, since they had no idea this would happen when the orders were made.

Hopefully all this hullabaloo over compact cameras with a big sensors and decent interchangeable lenses (or excellent fixed lenses a la X1, DP1, DP2) will inspire other companies (Canon, Nikon, Pentax) to jump into this arena. There have been unsubstantiated rumors of a Nikon similar to the Leica X1.


Panasonic GF1 and the Future of m43

There's been a lot of exciting news in the non-SLR digicam world lately. Today, Panasonic officially announced the previously leaked and much anticipated GF-1. This is supposed to give us the autofocus performance of the G1/GH1 with the tiny size of the Olympus E-P1. Unlike the E-P1 also offers a flash, an electronic eye-level viewfinder (more on that later), and a black finish (in addition to red, silver, and white).



It seems that Panasonic is putting a lot of energy into their m43 offerings... here's a list of the Panasonic-made components of their new system:

It seems that Panasonic has ceased development of new 4/3 (non-micro) cameras and lenses and put all their beyond-P&S energies into m43, so I'm excluding the existing 4/3 lenses (which don't AF as well when adapted anyway). The above list also doesn't include any of the Olympus m43 products. It's clear that Panny intend to make their system 'self-sufficient'. With all these nice prime lenses being announced, adapting M-mount rangefinder lenses to m43 cameras seems to be less and less relevant.

Sure, some of the lenses will be very expensive ($900 for the Leica 45/2.8 macro... ouch), but the prices don't seem as bad if you think of this as your primary camera system. A lot of enthusiasts (like myself) have mentally relegated m43 to 2nd-tier status behind DSLR systems. Sure, the m43 system has a long way to go before it will give us the flexibility of Canon or Nikon's vast array of lenses, flashes, and other accessories, but how many users out there actually use anything more than a handful of lenses (or just the kit lens + popup flash)? I love my Canon speedlights, but 90% of my DSLR shooting is done without them (and with 3-4 of my lenses).



A GF1 (or heck, even a G1) with a 3-lens 14/2.8, 20/1.7, and 45/2.8 kit (EFoV of 28/40/90) would be very sweet. Of course just a 2-lens 20/45 GF1 kit will set you back $2000 if you want to shoot at eye-level ($200 for the EVF). The non-Leica-branded 14/2.8 will likely be considerably less than $900, but the kit still pushes my price barrier for such a camera. This would all still cost less than a single 5D Mark II with no lens, but it's apples and oranges. It would be hard for me and many existing DSLR shooters to give up the high-ISO performance, great optical viewfinders, and extremely snappy performance that come along with those higher-end DSLR systems.

But as I've said before, m43 isn't necessarily for us enthusiasts (at least not exclusively). Panasonic themselves say they want to appeal to 20-30yr old 'active women' with the GF1. That explains the name ("Hey, maybe I should get my GF one.") The big questions that remain are:

  1. How good will the external viewfinder be? We already know a lot of photographers refuse to buy a camera at this price without an eye-level finder. We also know that the external EVF isn't nearly as good as the excellent ones in the G1 and GH1.
  2. Will the not-particularly-serious-but-serious-enough-to-want-something-more-than-a-P&S crowd want to spend $900 on a digicam when entry level DSLR kits with the same or better image quality are selling for $300 cheaper?


E-P1 vs G1 Focusing Speed Comparison

I recently borrowed a friend's Panasonic G1 and did a little comparison with the Olympus E-P1. Here's a video (taken with the SD880) of the test. Kit lenses were used on both cameras.

As you can see, the G1 focuses quicker and quieter than the Olympus. When switching lenses around (not shown in the video), the G1's 14-45 seems to focus a bit faster on the E-P1 than does the Oly's own collapsible 14-42. Likewise, the Oly lens on the Panny body also focuses faster, but not as fast as the Panny lens on the Panny body. Most of the speed of the G1's focusing does come from the body.


Powershot Love: SD880, SD780, and SD960

Ever heard the old saying, "the best camera is the one you carry with you"? Recently, I went on a trip to Australia with two great Canons: the much-discussed EOS 5D Mark II , and the often-overlooked PowerShot SD880IS . Many dismiss the jpeg-only, point-and-shoot, compact, volume-selling SD series as less-than-serious tools for photography. They lack the manual controls and build of certain Ricohs, the RAW capture of Canon's own G10, and the big sensors of the Sigma DP2. What the SD series cameras do have, is TRUE pocketability. I've seen forum posters saying they can fit an E-P1 with 17mm pancake lens in their pants pocket. I don't know what kind of MC Hammer pants these people wear, but that sounds silly. The portability advantages of the more serious 'compact' cameras over a semi-pro DSLR are certainly there, but they still can't be easily slipped into a small pocket.


Aperture and shutter priority modes are somewhat useless in cameras with sensors this small. Av mode is typically used to control depth-of-field, but you get almost limitless DoF at all but the closest focusing distances. The lenses on cameras this small don't even have true bladed adjustable apertures like those we see in larger format lenses. As for shutter speed control, the camera does have an "action" mode if you want to keep shutter speeds up, and it only uses smaller apertures if the shutter speed at the larger aperture will already be extremely fast. You can also manually set the ISO higher if you think the camera is giving you too-slow shutter speeds to capture action. There is, of course, easy to access exposure compensation, which is enough for the majority of photographic tasks.

The main feature that sets the SD880 apart from its siblings is the 28mm equivalent field-of-view on the wide end of its zoom range. Most SD-series Canons only go as wide as ~35mm.

Here are some examples of what the SD880 can do with a little help from Lightroom:

(click the photo to see the full-sized version)

Chinese Friendship Gardens

Let's compare this last photo to a similar shot taken with the 5DmkII:

Here's a side-by-side (click for 100% crops):

Forget for a moment that the SD880 shot is tilted, a crop, and not particularly well composed. I've increased the contrast and saturation of the 5D Mark II shot a bit to bring it closer to the SD880 one. There are still significant differences in post-processing. At 100% view, the difference isn't too huge. Sure the SLR technically has massive image quality advantages, but the SD880s size and cost are both about 1/14th those of the 5DmkII + 35L.


Unfortunately, the SD880 seems to be discontinued and the only people left selling it are asking very high prices. This brings me to two 720p HD-shooting alternatives, the slim SD780 and the wide-angle-capable SD960 . At 18.4mm, the SD780 is the thinnest of the PowerShots. The tradeoff for the slim body is a somewhat slower lens on the wide end (f3.2-f5.8 compared to the SD880's f2.8-f5.8). The SD960 is currently the only other SDxxx camera to feature a wide 28mm equivalent field of view. If you're used to the common SD-series interface, be aware that the SD960 is not the same. There are less buttons, and the menus are structured differently, but the overall usability is still very very good.



Hands-On E-P1 Account From an M8.2 User

Brad Herman has posted his First Impressions on the E-P1 over at RangeFinderForum. Brad's a current Leica M8.2 and former Pen F user, so he knows the premium compact space pretty well.

The big response to the E-P1 means more m43 bodies in the pipeline. My guess is that we'll see a larger body from Olympus, and a smaller body from Panasonic. What remains to be seen is how soon the "big 3" (Canon, Nikon, and Sony) will respond to this format. One "regular Joe" friend of mine says he loves his Panasonic G1 Kit (He came from a Casio Exilim). He's still on the learning curve, but was able to take good pictures straight out of the box. If more people discover this type of easier, smaller interchangeable lens camera, Rebel and Dxx sales might start to suffer.

It seems like Olympus wants to develop higher-end m43 bodies as well as more affordable ones. That should go a long way towards appeasing non-photographers who think the E-P1 is too expensive or photographers who think it isn't serious enough (mainly due to the lack of an eye-level viewfinder). On one side, I'm seeing plenty of people walking around with superzooms or other non-pocketable non-interchangeable-lens cameras, so it seems like there are plenty of users willing to give up the pocketability of ultra-compacts. On the other side, many "enthusiasts" (including myself) are picking up the E-P1 as a supplement to their larger "main" systems. They're not willing to give up the depth-of-field control, high-ISO performance, accessories, and overall image quality of their current systems. However, if Oly and Panny play their cards right, m43 could become more than a second system for the hardcore gearheads.