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Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1 Review

How Does it Compare?

I'll start off this conclusion with a personal story. In a matter of days, I'm headed off to Asia for a three week vacation. In the past, I've taken my digital SLR with me, and while I love the picture quality and selection of lenses, carrying all that gear around gets a little tiring after a while. I could bring a compact camera, but the photo quality often disappoints, especially in low light. When the Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1 came out last year, I was intrigued -- it had the flexibility and performance of a D-SLR, but in a smaller body. But it was still a bit larger than I wanted. When the Olympus E-P1 showed up I'd found what I had been looking for. Unfortunately, I was let down by its slow autofocus system. Enter the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1: it's roughly the same size as the E-P1 and has better AF performance, a built-in flash, a higher resolution LCD, and a nicer movie mode. Add in full manual controls, a second-to-none live view experience, great photo quality, and lots of bells and whistles and well, I was smitten. Not only do I highly recommend the DMC-GF1 -- I can tell you that I bought one to take on my trip.

The DMC-GF1 is a compact interchangeable lens camera that's not a whole lot different than the Olympus E-P1 in terms of size. The E-P1 undoubtedly wins the style contest, with it's retro look. The GF1, on the other hand, looks like a large DMC-LX3. The outer shell of the GF1 is made of metal, and it feels pretty solid. There are a few design-related things that I didn't care for, including an easy-to-bump drive mode switch, the flimsy door over the memory card/battery compartment, and the fact that you can't open said compartment while the camera is on a tripod. While the GF1 can be held and operated with just one hand, the lack of a right hand grip led me to use both. The GF1 features the same 12 Megapixel Live MOS sensor that is used on the original DMC-G1. It has an ultrasonic dust removal system, which is extra important since there's no mirror to protect the lens. The GF1 uses the Micro Four Thirds standard, which has only a handful of lenses at this point, but you can also use "classic" Four Thirds lenses, plus Leica and Olympus OM lenses, assuming that you've bought the appropriate adapter. Whichever lens you choose, there will be a 2X focal length conversion ratio. I should also point out that there's no image stabilization built into the DMC-GF1, unlike its Olympus counterpart. Something the GF1 has that the E-P1 does not is a built-in flash. It's not as strong as what you'd find on a digital SLR, but it's better than nothing at all. Should you desire more flash power, the camera's hot shoe is at your disposal.

On the back of the GF1 is an ultra-sharp 3-inch LCD display that is the heart of the camera's live view system. This screen has 460,000 pixels (twice that of the E-P1), so everything is very sharp. The screen has very good outdoor visibility, especially when the Power LCD option is turned on. Being a Micro Four Thirds camera, you'll do all your photo-taking using the LCD or the optional electronic viewfinder (which I didn't get a chance to test). On the LCD you'll get a bright, fluid view of the scene, with a live histogram, customizable guide lines, 23-point autofocus, face detection, manual focus enlargement, and more. In low light situations the view on the LCD brightens automatically, so you can still see what you're trying to take a photo of. And, perhaps most importantly, the camera focuses quickly in live view mode, unlike digital SLRs (and the E-P1, to an extent).

The GF1 is loaded with features that will be quite familiar to owners of Panasonic's compact cameras. On the point-and-shoot side, there's Intelligent Auto mode. This will select a scene mode for you, detect any faces that are present, reduce blur by boosting the ISO as-needed, brighten shadows, and track a moving subject. The GF1 can do many of the same things when you're recording movies in iA mode, as well. If you want to select a scene mode on your own, don't worry, you can do that too -- and there are plenty to choose from. As I mentioned, the GF1 has a face detection system, and it works very well. The camera also has the ability to recognize faces that you've taught it, giving them focus priority. It can even save the name and birthday of your child or pet into the metadata of your photo. The DMC-GF1 also has a full set of manual controls. There are aperture and shutter priority, full manual, and bulb exposure modes. You can both fine-tune and bracket for white balance, and the GF1's film modes let you have different color and sharpness settings close at hand.

The GF1 also has an HD movie mode, with your choice of codecs: AVCHD Lite (long recording times, easy HDTV viewing, but a pain to edit) and Motion JPEG (easy editing, but large file sizes and limited recording time). You have access to both continuous autofocus and image stabilization, if your lens supports those features. The only manual controls here are for exposure compensation and aperture (in a scene mode sort of way). Sound recording is digital, but monaural. A wind cut filter is available for recording videos outdoors.

The DMC-GF1 a very responsive performer. Despite needing to run its dust reduction at startup, it's still ready to take a photo as soon as you flip the power switch. The GF1's autofocus speeds are excellent, especially if you've seen what passes for contrast detect AF on regular D-SLRs. The GF1 focuses as quickly with contrast detect AF in live view as most digital SLRs do when using their optical viewfinders and dedicated AF sensors. Low light doesn't cause the camera any trouble either, with focus times staying under a second in most cases. Shutter lag and shot-to-shot-times were both minimal. The camera's burst mode is a bit of a letdown; while you can keep shooting JPEGs until your memory card fills up, the frame rate is less than 3 frames/second. If you're shooting RAW or RAW+JPEG, the buffer fills after just four or five photos. As for battery life, the GF1 has good numbers for a live view-only interchangeable lens camera, though buying a spare battery is still a good idea (I did).

Photo quality was very good as well. The GF1 took well-exposed photos, though there is some highlight clipping at times. Colors were pleasing, though I might crank the saturation up a notch to give things a little more punch. Sharpness is right where I like to see it. As for noise, you probably won't notice any until ISO 800 in low light and ISO 1600 in good light. If you're willing to shoot RAW and post-process, you can push things a stop further and get very usable results. The GF1 corrects for both barrel distortion and purple fringing automatically, so that wasn't a problem. It's supposed to digitally remove redeye as well, but I had no luck with that feature. Do note that there's no redeye removal tool in playback mode, so if your photos end up with this annoyance, you'll have to use your computer to fix it.

It's safe to say that you can't get a better endorsement than having a reviewer buying the camera they are writing about. The GF1 isn't my main digital SLR -- I have a D300s for my high ISO image quality, wide lens selection, and quick continuous shooting needs. But for travel and everyday shooting, the GF1 more than fits the bill. It offers great photo quality, snappy performance, and all the bells and whistles that users of compact cameras are used to, with all the benefits of an interchangeable lens camera. The GF1 is the Micro Four Thirds camera that many people -- myself included -- have been waiting for, and Panasonic certainly delivered the goods.

What I liked:

  • Very good photo quality: low noise until highest ISOs, minimal highlight clipping or purple fringing
  • Interchangeable lenses in a (relatively) compact body
  • 3-inch, high resolution LCD with great outdoor visibility
  • First-rate live view experience: super-fast AF, face detection/recognition, live histogram, custom grid lines, and more
  • Full manual controls; RAW format supported, with capable (but clunky) editor included
  • Camera can bracket for exposure, white balance, and Film Mode
  • Intelligent Auto mode selects a scene mode for you, detects faces, reduces blur, brightens shadows -- all automatically
  • HD movie mode with choice of codecs, use of continuous AF and image stabilization when available
  • Customizable buttons, spot on mode dial; Film Mode allow you to have sets of color/sharpness/noise reduction options
  • Dust reduction system
  • Built-in flash + hot shoe for another
  • Optional electronic viewfinder (though it's pricey and pretty average in terms of specs)
  • HDMI output

What I didn't care for:

  • Some redeye and highlight clipping
  • Movies created with AVCHD Lite codec are difficult to share and edit; frame rate isn't true 60 fps; Motion JPEG movies have huge file sizes, limited recording time
  • Unremarkable continuous shooting mode
  • Flash isn't terribly powerful
  • No fluorescent white balance option
  • Lens release button too easy to bump
  • Flimsy door over memory card/battery compartment; can't access memory card while camera is on a tripod
  • Manual leaves much to be desired

Some other compact cameras with interchangeable lenses and live view include the Canon EOS Rebel T1i, Nikon D5000, Olympus E-P1, Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1 and DMC-GH1, Pentax K-x, and the Sony Alpha DSLR-A380.

As always, I recommend a trip to your local camera or electronics store to try out the Lumix DMC-GF1 and its competitors before you buy!

Conclusion updated on 11/1/09

Photo Gallery

See how the DMC-GF1's photos look in our gallery!

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If you have a question about this review, please send them to Jeff. Due to my limited resources, please do not e-mail me asking for a personal recommendation.