Panasonic shrinks interchangeable-lens camera

The Lumix DMC-GF3 is Panasonic's smallest Micro Four Thirds camera yet.

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It seems like only yesterday that Panasonic rolled out the Lumix DMC-GF2--and in fact, it's only been about six months here in the U.S., though the older model debuted overseas a few months earlier than that. Regardless, Panasonic's ready with a new, even more compact interchangeable-lens model. The GF3 doesn't replace the GF2, but it's priced the same, which I suspect is going to make for some confusing buying decisions.

The GF2 uses the same 12-megapixel Live MOS sensor and Venus Engine FHD processor as the GF2, but incorporates some of the enhancements from the G3, including the Light Speed autofocus system and focusing options like pinpoint and a picture-in-picture navigator for manual focus. Panasonic also includes the more advanced auto mode from the G3 which allows for color and brightness adjustments.

Here's Panasonic's current ILC lineup:

Panasonic Lumix DMC-G3 Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF2 Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3 Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH2
Sensor (effective resolution) 16-megapixel Live MOS 12.1-megapixel Live MOS 12.1-megapixel Live MOS 16.1-megapixel Live MOS
17.3 x 13.0mm 17.3 x 13.0mm 17.3 x 13.0mm 17.3 x 13.0mm
Focal-length multiplier 2.0x 2.0x 2.0x 2.0x
Image processor version Venus Engine FHD Venus Engine FHD Venus Engine FHD Venus Engine FHD
Sensitivity range ISO 100 - ISO 6400 ISO 100 - ISO 6400 ISO 100 - ISO 6400 ISO 160 - ISO 12,800
Continuous shooting 4fps
unlimited JPEG/ 7 raw
unlimited JPEG/7 raw
unlimited JPEG/7 raw
5.0 fps
unlimited JPEG/ 7 raw
magnification/ effective magnification
1.4 million dots
100% coverage
1.4x/0.7x magnification
Optional Electronic
None Electronic
1.5 million dots
100% coverage
1.42x/0.71x magnification
Autofocus 23-area contrast AF 23-area contrast AF 23-area contrast AF 23-area contrast AF
Shutter speed 60-1/4000 sec; bulb to 2 minutes 60-1/4000 sec; bulb to 4 minutes; 1/160 x-sync 60-1/4000 sec; 1/160 x-sync 1/4000 to 60 secs; bulb up to 2 minutes; 1/160 x-sync
Metering 144 zone 144 zone 144 zone 144 zone
Image stabilization Optical Optical Optical Optical
On-camera flash Yes Yes Yes Yes
Video AVCHD 1080/60i @ 17 Mbps; 720/60p @ 17 Mbps 1080/60i/50i @ 17, 13 Mbps
720/60p @17, 13 Mbps AVCHD or Motion JPEG QuickTime MOV
1080/60i/50i @ 17 Mbps
720/60p @17 Mbps AVCHD or Motion JPEG QuickTime MOV
AVCHD 1080/60i/50i/24p (60p sensor output) @ 24, 17, 13Mbps; 720/60p @ 17, 13Mbps
QuickTime MOV Motion JPEG
Audio Stereo Stereo Mono Stereo, mic input
LCD size 3 inches articulated
460,000 dots
3-inch fixed touch screen
460,000 dots
3-inch fixed touch screen
460,000 dots
3 inches articulated
460,000 dots
Battery life (CIPA rating) 250 shots 300 shots 320 shots 340 shots
Dimensions (inches, WHD) 4.5 x 3.3 x 1.8 4.4 x 2.7 x 1.3 4.2 x 2.6 x 1.3 4.9 x 3.5 x 3.0
Body operating weight (ounces) 11.8 (est) 11 9.3 (est) 17.8
Mfr. Price n/a $499.95 (body only, est) n/a $899.95 (body only)
$699.99 (with 14-42mm f3.5-5.6 lens) $599.95 (with 14-42mm f3.5-5.6 lens) $599.99 (with 14-42mm f3.5-5.6 lens) $999.95 (with 14-42mm lens)
n/a $699.95 (with 14mm f2.5 lens) $699.99 (with 14mm f2.5 lens) $1499.95 (with 14-140mm lens)
Ship date June 2011 January 2011 July 2011 December 2010

Like the GF2, the GF3 has a combination touch-screen and traditional button interface, but Panasonic has replaced the discrete four-way nav buttons and jog dial with a more point-and-shoot-like combination button/dial. To prevent accidentally scrolling your way into bizarre settings, the wheel ignores the first couple of turns before activation. I'm torn about the implementation. I think it's necessary to accident-proof the scroll wheel--heaven knows I have enough of them--but when you're trying to adjust shutter speed or aperture that lag can get disorienting and make you overshoot. That's going to require a bit of field testing when I get the production model.

While the controls look different, they mostly operate the same way as on the GF2. But because the jog dial is gone, Panasonic had to move the exposure compensation to the up button, pushing ISO sensitivity into the Quick Menu. Overall, I like the interface. It's straightforward, with large virtual buttons that are easy to hit, and the touch screen is sufficiently responsive. But I think there's still a bit of a discoverability problem with the features. For example, I inadvertently turned off that PIP feature I mentioned earlier and in the absence of a manual, can't figure out how to turn it back on.

What makes it so confusing is that for the same price as the GF2 you get a slightly smaller camera where you gain better focusing features, possibly slightly better performance, and a new (but not unique) Miniature special effect, but where you lose the hot shoe and viewfinder option and drop from stereo audio in movie capture to mono. Based on a few test images from this preproduction model, I don't think the image quality is going to be much different, though a lot can change in firmware before it ships in July. Note that the two kits have different ship dates: the 14mm in July, the zoom in August.

Here's how the GF3 stacks up against compact, similarly priced ILCs:

Olympus E-PL2 Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3 Samsung NX100 Sony Alpha NEX-C3 Sony Alpha NEX-5
Sensor (effective resolution) 12.3-megapixel Live MOS 12.1-megapixel Live MOS 14.6-megapixel CMOS 16.2-megapixel Exmor HD CMOS 14.2-megapixel Exmor CMOS
17.3mm x 13mm 17.3 x 13.0mm 23.4mm x 15.6mm 23.5mm x 15.6mm 23.4mm x 15.6mm
Focal-length multiplier 2.0x 2.0x 1.5x 1.5x 1.5x
Sensitivity range ISO 200 - ISO 6,400 ISO 100 - ISO 6400 ISO 100 - ISO 3,200/6,400 (expanded) ISO 200 - ISO 12,800 ISO 200 - ISO 12,800
Continuous shooting 3.0 fps
unlimited JPEG/7 raw
3.0 fps
10 JPEG/ 3 raw
2.5 fps
18 JPEG/ 6 raw
(5.5fps with fixed exposure)
2.3 fps
unlimited JPEG/8 raw
(7fps with fixed exposure)
magnification/ effective magnification
Optional plug-in articulating EVF
1,440,000 dots
None Optional plug-in EVF
201,000 dots
(98 percent coverage)
None None
Autofocus 11-area contrast AF 23-area contrast AF 15-point contrast AF 25-point contrast AF 25-point contrast AF
Shutter speed 60-1/2000 sec; bulb to 30 minutes 60-1/4000 sec; 1/160 x-sync 30-1/4000 sec.; bulb to 8 minutes 30-1/4000 sec.; bulb; 1/160 flash sync 30-1/4000 sec.; bulb; 1/160 flash sync
Metering 324 area 144 zone 247 segment 49 zone 40 segment
Flash Yes Yes No Included optional Included optional
Image stabilization Sensor shift Optical Optical Optical Optical
Video 720p Motion JPEG AVI 1080/60i/50i @ 17 Mbps
720/60p @17 Mbps AVCHD or Motion JPEG QuickTime MOV
720/30p H.264 MPEG-4 720/30p H.264 MPEG-4 1080/60i AVCHD
Audio Mono; mic input Mono Mono Stereo; mic input Stereo; mic input
LCD size 3-inch fixed
460,000 dots
3-inch fixed touch screen
460,000 dots
3-inch fixed AMOLED
921,000 dots
3-inch tilting
921,600 dots
3-inch tilting
921,600 dots
Battery life (CIPA rating) 280 shots 320 shots 420 shots 400 shots 330 shots
Dimensions (inches, WHD) 4.5 x 2.8 x 1.6 4.2 x 2.6 x 1.3 4.7 x 2.8 x 1.4 4.4 x 2.4 x 0.9 4.4 x 2.4 x 1.6
Body operating weight (ounces) 12.7 9.3 (est) 12.2 10.7 10.2 (without flash); 10.9 (with flash)
Mfr. Price n/a n/a n/a n/a n/a
$599.99 (with 14-42mm f3.5-5.6 msc lens) $599.95 (with 14-42mm f3.5-5.6 lens) $499.99 (est, with 20-50mm f3.5-5.6 i-Function lens) $649.99 (with 18-55mm 3.5-5.6 lens) $699.99 (with 18-55mm 3.5-5.6 lens)
$799.00 (est, with 14-42mm and 40-150mm lenses) $699.95 (with 14mm f2.5 lens) $599.00 (with 50-200mm lens) $599.99 (with 16mm f2.8 lens) $649.99 (with 16mm f2.8 lens)
Ship date January 2011 July 2011 October 2010 August 2011 July 2010

The main competitor for the GF3 is Sony's NEX series. Both are small ILC bodies; unfortunately, unless equipped with a prime lens, ILCs just can't get as pocketable as a lot of point-and-shoot upgraders want. The larger sensor necessary for better photo quality simply requires a larger lens mount and lens to cover it than the tiny sensors in snapshot cameras. And once you stick on a typical kit zoom lens, like the 14-42mm for the Micro Four Thirds models or 18-55mm for APS-C models, the cameras can still get pretty large. Between the two, though, the NEX's tilting LCD gives it a bit of an edge.

There are also cheaper ILCs, including the larger Samsung NX100 and the even larger Olympus E-PL2. I don't think ILCs can really start selling significantly until prices drop even further, which is too bad--for the features, performance, and quality most of the cameras in this class deliver, the prices aren't unreasonable.

Along with the camera, Panasonic is introducing a new Leica-branded 25mm f1.4 prime lens (50mm equivalent) that will also ship in August. It's a nice feeling lens with nice specs, smooth manual focus ring, and silent operation for video capture. I also shot with a preproduction version a bit and loved the build and speed (both focus and aperture) but it displays a lot more fringing than I expected. I hope that's fixed before it's final.