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Panasonic Lumix GX1 review: Panasonic Lumix GX1

Excellent low-light performance, accurate colour and noise-free results mean you'll have trouble finding a more flexible camera than the Panasonic GX1.

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Nik Rawlinson
Nik Rawlinson has been writing about tech since Windows 95 was looking distinctly futuristic. He is a former Editor of MacUser magazine and one-time scribe for Personal Computer World. Nik is a freelance writer and is not an employee of CNET.
Nik Rawlinson
7 min read

We looked at a pre-production sample of the GX1 back in November. It greatly impressed us. Now Panasonic has started shipping the first finished units we've called one in and run it through our regular rigorous tests, to see whether it lived up to our expectations.

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9.3

Panasonic Lumix GX1

The Good

Flexible, configurable hardware; Small lens system courtesy of Micro Four Thirds system; Good low-light performance.

The Bad

None.

The Bottom Line

A highly configurable camera that will appeal directly to the more ambitious photographer. Excellent low-light performance, accurate colour reproduction and sharp, noise-free results at even fairly middling sensitivity mean you'll have trouble finding a more flexible, dependable model than the Panasonic Lumix GX1.

The Panasonic Lumix DMC-GX1 is available now for around £450 body-only, or for around £550 in a kit with a 14-42mm lens.

Features and usability

The GX1 is built on Panasonic's Micro Four Thirds platform, here delivering 16 megapixels in a compact body with interchangeable lens. Buy it with a kit lens and you can choose from two 14-42mm f/3.5-f/5.6 units; one powered and one manual. The Micro Four Thirds system has a focal length multiplier of two, so each of these lenses acts like a 28-84mm unit on a 35mm camera.

If you've opted for the powered lens, the primary zoom is on the left side of its stubby barrel and replicated on the rear display, where a four-step slider zooms in and out at two speeds in each direction. What those speeds are is up to you, as you can set the zoom independently for stills and video shooting modes to high, medium or low.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-GX1 detail test
The GX1 can be bought as a body on its own, or bundled with one of two kit lenses -- one powered and one manual.

This is just one of many touchscreen controls, as many of the GX1's core features are presented in a similar manner. Switch to full auto mode, for example, and you can use the neat defocus feature for blurring your subject's surroundings. In effect you're playing with the aperture here, but it's presented in a more friendly manner for less experienced users.

The Q menu, which runs across the bottom of the screen and is again controlled by tapping directly, can be fully customised by dragging those settings on which you rely most often into empty blocks on the menu strip. So, if you only ever want to change sensitivity, image quality and white balance, you can drag out everything else, and drag these in.

Further options present themselves while shooting, such as the built-in level gauge. This is a line that runs across the display; line this up with the horizon and then tilt the camera until it changes from yellow to green and you know it's perfectly square. This works in both landscape and portrait mode, and within it there's a further tilt gauge, which shows green when the camera is held level in front of you, but yellow if you're tilting the lens either up or down.

You need more feedback? Not a problem. How about a live histogram to show when your frame is under or over exposed? You can position this where you like, hiving it off into one corner if you find it distracting, but for our money we'd rather take advantage of the fact that it's semi-transparent and leave it in its default position: square and centre in the middle of the level gauges. You can still see your subject through it.

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As the most customisable camera we've used, Panasonic lets you set the function of some of the GX1's buttons.

There's plenty here for advanced photographers to get their teeth into, but Panasonic hasn't forgotten the more ambitious beginner. As well as full auto there are 17 scene modes to choose from, covering all the usual bases, including portrait, pets and party, and a creative control menu with retro, high key and toy effects, among others.

When you've found a combination of settings that you want to save for future use, there are two further slots on the mode selector -- C1 and C2 -- in which they can be stored, while four custom buttons, two on the body and two in the on-screen menus give direct access to whichever controls you assign them.

Photo quality

We performed our first batch of tests under very overcast conditions, yet the GX1 made great use of the available light to nonetheless produce realistic, often vibrant colours at fairly conservative levels of sensitivity.

The image below was shot at half past three, in drizzle, on a December afternoon at ISO 160 (f/3.5, 1/125 second exposure), yet the light within the frame is extremely well balanced. There is a wealth of detail in the underside of the white boat, and no sign of chromatic aberration where the highly contrasting rigging passes over the pale sky.

Chromatic aberration is an undesirable effect in which the lens fails to exactly focus each wavelength of available light in the same position on the sensor. The result, absent here, is a coloured fringe running along the edge of strong contrasts such as branches, window frames and ropes.

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Despite the poor shooting conditions, the GX1 made a good job of accurately exposing this, putting plenty of detail into otherwise flat surfaces (click image to enlarge).

We switched to the GX1's Intelligent Auto mode so that it could decide on the appropriate shooting settings. Again, it performed extremely well, with the dockside below well balanced, with a neat tailing off of levels towards the shadow end of the spectrum and no loss of detail in the darker portions of the frame.

Again, it was exposed at ISO 160, and zooming to 100 per cent reveals no evidence of grain or noise. Transitions in areas of broadly similar tone, such as the grey roof at the back of the scene are smooth and unstepped.

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When set to Intelligent Auto, the GX1 made a great job of exposing this quayside scene (click image to enlarge).

It's perhaps not surprising that the GX1 performs so well at ISO 160, given that its maximum sensitivity is ISO 12,800. This is undeniably ambitious, and although the results are useable they do demonstrate a considerable degree of noise, as can be seen in the image below. As is often the case, conversion to black and white in post production does much to distract from the effect.

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The GX1's results remain useable at ISO 12,800, so long as you're happy to work with a degree of noise in the image (click image to enlarge).

That said, the GX1 handles higher mid-range sensitivities particularly well. The image below is a 1/60 second exposure at ISO 1600. That's little more than a tenth the GX1's upper limit, but would still be enough to have many compacts introducing a high degree of noise. In this instance, though, even zooming to 100 per cent reveals only a feint dappling, which is truly impressive. We'd be more than happy to print and mount shots taken at this level.

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At ISO 1,600, noise is impressively well handled, with only the feintest dappling evident in this image when zoomed to 100 per cent (click image to enlarge).

The GX1 consistently impressed us with the definition and fidelity of its output, right across the colour spectrum, and when we turned to shooting brighter natural colours, such as flowers and foliage it demonstrated excellent tonal reproduction and an enviable level of detail. Colours were punchy, with reds and greens well saturated.

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This flower stall, taken under overcast skies and fading light was nonetheless full of colour (click image to enlarge).
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Likewise, the blues, greens and reds of this garden shot, composed under more favourable conditions, were punchy and bright (click image to enlarge).

Turning to our regular still-life test, we shot a collection of everyday objects, once under studio lighting and then again using available ambient light and the GX1's onboard flash, which pops forward and up from the top of the body on an articulated arm so that the protruding lens barrel won't cast a shadow on your subject.

The results achieved under studio lighting were among the best we have seen from any camera. Contrasts were extremely sharp, wood grain was well defined, and illumination on smooth, curved surfaces such as the orange and green brush in the centre of the frame, the vitamin tubes and the mugs was accurate and realistic.

The GX1 had to increase its sensitivity from ISO 160 to ISO 1,250 when relying on ambient light, which naturally introduced a degree more noise and impacted the sharpness of the printed text in our book and the vibrancy of the colours in our scene, but the results were nonetheless acceptable. There was, however, lack of definition in the darker portions of the image, such as the part of the red mug hidden behind the spirit miniature and the peppercorns on the right of the frame.

Turning finally to the flash-illuminated scene, here the camera-mounted illumination washed out some of our colours, in particular in those parts of the image that sat square and centre and so reflected the light the most directly.

Further, as the GX1 has widened its aperture from f/6.3 in the studio-lit setting to f/3.5 in the flash and ambient lighting shots it had shortened the depth of field, with the result that those parts of the setup sitting around the edge of the frame were not so sharp as they were in the studio lit version. This could be corrected by taking manual control of the exposure settings.

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Under studio lighting conditions, the GX1's performance in our still life test was among the best we've ever seen (click image to enlarge).

Video performance

Again, the GX1 made great use of the available light to deliver punchy colours and plenty of detail in its videos. Its native movie format is AVCHD at 1,920x1,080 pixels.

We were particularly impressed that although we were using a powered zoom there was no evidence of the barrel movement on the soundtrack as we zoomed in and out. Although we had set wind noise cut to 'auto' (the only other option is 'off') there was considerable wind noise at times, however, which proved distracting when playing back our movie.

Conclusion

The GX1 development unit we got our hands on back in November impressed us greatly, and running the finished camera through our regular tests has done nothing to change our opinion.

As one of the most flexible, configurable cameras we've tested, it's a device you can mould to meet your own particular needs. By the time you have, you'll be using a camera that precisely meets your needs, giving you the best chance of capturing whatever scene you're after, wherever you happen to be.

It's compact, well balanced and produces great results, even in unfavourable conditions. In all, then, a highly attractive and keenly priced package for the more ambitious compact user.