Panasonic GF1: Finally, a camera that fulfills the Micro Four Thirds promise?

Thus far, interchangeable lens cameras have either been feature-packed but big or compact but lacking important capabilities. The Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1 looks like the first model positioned to appeal to the snapshooter looking to step up.

Panasonic

For the manufacturers who've plunged into the interchangeable-lens camera business--at this point, that's Olympus and Panasonic with their Micro Four Thirds standard--the potential market comprises two groups of consumers: those who want something better and faster than their current point-and-shoot, but don't want the bulk of a dSLR, and those who don't necessarily mind the bulk of a dSLR, but wouldn't mind something a bit smaller with the same flexibility.

Panasonic's first two models, the DMC-G1 and DMC-GH1, address the latter group pretty well, but don't really appeal to the compact-minded folks. Plus, the GH1 is fairly expensive, thanks to the pricey bundled lens designed for optimal video capture performance. On the flip side, Olympus nailed the compact market with the E-P1's design; however, without a built-in flash or viewfinder, a low-resolution LCD screen, and performance that doesn't necessarily best the typical point-and-shoot, it doesn't provide mass appeal for the snapshot upgraders. But with the DMC-GF1, it looks as if Panasonic might have produced the first model that hits all the right notes.

The GF1 essentially crams most of the capabilities of the GH1 into a smaller, more affordable camera--and price was one of my main complaints with the GH1. Here's how the MFT models compare:

  Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1 Olympus E-P1 Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1 Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH1
Sensor (effective resolution) 12.1-megapixel Live MOS 12.3-megapixel Live MOS 12.1-megapixel Live MOS 12.1-megapixel Live MOS
17.3mm x 13mm 17.3mm x 13mm 17.3mm x 13mm 17.3mm x 13mm
Color depth n/a 12 bits n/a n/a
Sensitivity range ISO 100 - ISO 3,200 ISO 100 - ISO 6,400 ISO 100 - ISO 3,200 ISO 100 - ISO 3,200
Focal-length multiplier 2x 2x 2x 2x
Continuous shooting 3.0 fps
unlimited JPEG/7 raw
3.0 fps
n/a JPEG/10 raw
3.0 fps
unlimited JPEG/7 raw
3.0 fps
unlimited JPEG/7 raw
Viewfinder Optional Electronic Optional optical with 17mm lens Electronic Electronic
Autofocus 23-area contrast AF 11-area contrast AF 23-area contrast AF 23-area contrast AF
Metering 144 zone 324 zone 144 zone 144 zone
Shutter 60-1/4000 sec; bulb to 4 minutes 60-1/4,000 sec; bulb to 30 minutes 60-1/4,000 sec; bulb to 4 minutes 60-1/4,000 sec; bulb to 4 minutes
Flash Yes No Yes Yes
LCD 3-inch fixed
460,000 dots
3-inch fixed
230,000 dots
3-inch articulated
460,000 dots
3-inch articulated
460,000 dots
Video (max resolution at 30fps) 1280x720 AVCHD Lite or Motion JPEG MOV 1280x720 Motion JPEG AVI None 1280x720 AVCHD Lite
Battery life (CIPA rating) 350 shots 300 shots 300 shots 300 shots
Dimensions (WHD, inches) 4.7x2.8x1.4 4.7x2.8x1.4 4.9x3.3x1.8 4.9x3.3x1.8
Weight (ounces) 10.3 (estimated) 13.9 15.1 15.2
Mfr. Price n/a $749.99 (body)
n/a
n/a
$899.95 (with 14-45mm f3.5-5.6 lens) $799.99 (with 14-42mm f3.5-5.6 lens)
$799.95 (with 14-45mm f3.5-5.6 lens) $1,499.95 (with 14-140mm f4.0-5.8 lens)
$899.95 (with 20mm f1.7 lens) $899.99 (with 17mm f2.8 lens and optical viewfinder) n/a
n/a

Unlike the typical optical add-on viewfinders we occasionally see in these types of compacts, the Panasonic offers an electronic viewfinder that plugs in to a connector above the LCD and intercepts the live feed from the sensor. While I'm not a big fan of EVFs, this scheme does have a couple of advantages. First, it delivers a relatively accurate display of the scene framing. And second, Panasonic's EVF can tilt for off-angle shooting.

Additionally, the GF1 introduces a new scene mode called Peripheral Defocus that automatically opens the aperture as wide as possible given the exposure constraints, plus a mode that lets you adjust depth of field while shooting video. Panasonic also takes a leaf out of Olympus' Art Filters book with a My Color mode that provides effects presets such as Expressive, Retro, and Silhouette; unlike Olympus' implementation, however, Panasonic lets you control color, brightness and saturation.

The GF1's body is closer than ever in size and weight to the enthusiast compacts it will compete with as well. Here's how they compare:

Comparison: enthusiast compact models Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1 Canon PowerShot G11 Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3
Sensor (effective resolution) 12.1-megapixel Live MOS 10-megapixel CCD 10.1-megapixel CCD
17.3mm x 13mm 1/1.7-inch 1/1.63-inch
Sensitivity range ISO 100 - ISO 3,200 ISO 80 - ISO 3,200 ISO 80 - ISO 3,200
Focal-length multiplier 2x n/a n/a
Continuous shooting 3.0 fps
unlimited JPEG/7 raw
1.1fps
n/a
2.5 fps
4 JPEG/3 raw
Viewfinder Optional Electronic Optical None
Autofocus 23-area contrast AF Contrast AF Contrast AF
Metering 144 zone n/a n/a
Shutter 60-1/4,000 sec; bulb to 4 minutes 15-1/4,000 sec; n/a 60-1/2,000 sec; n/a
LCD 3-inch fixed
460,000 dots
2.8-inch articulated
461,000 dots
, 3-inch fixed
460,000 dots
Video (max resolution at 30fps) 1,280x720 AVCHD Lite or Motion JPEG MOV 640x480 H.264 MOV 848x480 Motion JPEG MOV
Battery life (CIPA rating) 350 shots 420 shots 380 shots
Dimensions (WHD, inches) 4.7x2.8x1.4 4.4x3.0x1.0 4.3x2.3x1.1
Weight (ounces) 10.3 (estimated) 14.3 (estimated) 9.1
Mfr. Price $899.95
(with 14-45mm f3.5-5.6 lens or 20mm f1.7 lens)
$499.99
(integrated f2.8-4.5 28-140mm-equivalent lens)
$499.95
(integrated 24-60mm f2.0-2.8 lens)

The GF1 is a lot more expensive than these types of competitors, and even with one of the pancake fixed-focal length lenses it will still be pretty large in comparison. It does pack that HD video recording, though, and many people would consider the flexiblity of interchangeable lenses worth the extra money.

As for the GF1's third competitive option, dSLRs, the smaller size may be quite attractive to many people, a lot of whom might be willing to sacrifice the burst shooting speed (and continuous shooting is always easier with an optical viewfinder, regardless of frame rate) and high ISO sensitivity performance; I expect the GF1's noise profile to look very much like the GH1's, which was inferior to that of the $900 dSLRs the GF1 faces.

Comparison: Similarly priced dSLRs Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1 Canon EOS Rebel T1i Nikon D5000
Sensor (effective resolution) 12.1-megapixel Live MOS 15.1-megapixel CMOS 12.3-megapixel CCD
17.3mm x 13mm 22.3mm x 14.9mm 23.6mm x 15.8mm
Focal-length multiplier 2x 1.6x 1.5x
Color depth n/a 14 bits 12 bits
Sensitivity range ISO 100 - ISO 3,200 ISO 100 - ISO 3,200/ISO 12,800 (expanded) ISO 100 (expanded)/ISO 200 - ISO 3,200/ISO 6,400 (expanded)
Continuous shooting 3.0 fps
unlimited JPEG/7 raw
3.4fps
170 JPEG/9 raw
4 fps
9 raw/100 JPEG (medium/fine)
Viewfinder Optional Electronic Optical Optical
Autofocus 23-area contrast AF 9-area phase detect AF (contrast AF in Live View) 11-area phase detect AF (contrast AF in Live View)
Metering 144 zone 35 zone 420 pixel RGB sensor 3D Color Matrix Metering II
Shutter 60-1/4000 sec; bulb to 4 minutes 1/4000 sec. to 30 sec.; bulb 1/4000 sec. to 30 sec; bulb
LCD 3-inch fixed
460,000 dots
3-inch fixed
920,000 dots
2.7-inch articulated
230,000 dots
Video (max resolution at 30fps) 1280x720 AVCHD Lite or Motion JPEG MOV 1280x720 H.264 MOV No 30fps mode; 1280x720 24fps Motion JPEG AVI
Battery life (CIPA rating) 350 shots 400 shots 400 shots
Dimensions (WHD, inches) 4.7x2.8x1.4 5.1x3.8x2.4 5.0x4.1x3.1
Weight (ounces) 10.3 (estimated) 18.6 21.6
Mfr. Price $899.95
(with 14-45mm f3.5-5.6 lens or 20mm f1.7 lens)
$799.99 (body est.)
$899.99 (with 18-55mm f3.5-5.6 lens)
$729.95 (body)
$849.99 (est. with 18-55mm f3.5-5.6 lens)

Ultimately, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1 makes some promises I can't wait to see if it can fulfill. It's slated to ship in early October, though we expect to have an evaluation unit before then.

 

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