Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3 Review
Look and Feel
As I mentioned in the introduction to this article, the Lumix DMC-GF3 has transformed from a square, rangefinder-style camera to an compact camera not much larger than, say, the DMC-LX5. Where earlier models looked like competition for the Olympus E-Px cameras, it's pretty clear that the GF3 is targeting potential Sony NEX buyers (as well as those considering the Olympus Pen Mini, coming later this year). The body is made almost entirely of metal, and it feels nice and solid, save for the usual spot: the plastic door over the battery/memory card compartment.
Here's a photo I don't normally take with interchangeable lens cameras, but it gives you an idea as to just how small the GF3 is
Ergonomics are a mixed bag. The camera's small size makes it easy to hold and operate with one hand. However, the same compact body that allows that also makes the controls quite small and tightly packed. I found that my right thumb rests right on the top half of the four-way controller, which is just asking for trouble. The GF3 doesn't have a whole lot of buttons, which means that you'll have to rely on the Quick Menu for adjusting most of the camera's settings.
|The DMC-GF3 (left) compared to its predecessor, the DMC-GF2
Image courtesy of Panasonic
Above you can see the new DMC-GF3 and last year's GF2 side-by-side. The back view illustrates just how many controls and other items were removed on the GF3. The hot shoe and accessory port are gone, and the control wheel has been move down to the four-way controller. Something that you cannot see here is that the GF3 now has a monaural microphone, rather than the stereo one found on the GF2 -- and an external mic isn't an option, either.
Images courtesy of Panasonic
The DMC-GF3 will be available in four colors: white, brown, red, and (of course) black.
I already told you that the GF3 is considerably smaller than its predecessor. How does it compare to other compact interchangeable lens cameras (as well as a few D-SLRs) in terms of size and weight? Have a look:
Back when I wrote the preview of the GF3, it was the smallest interchangeable lens camera in the world. It has since lost that title to the Pentax Q, though its sensor is much smaller than what you'd find on a Micro Four Thirds or APS-C camera, which is why Pentax was able to come up with something so tiny. The GF3 is really only a pocket camera if you have the pancake lens on. Once you attach a larger lens, it'll have to travel in a bag or over your shoulder.
Let's take a tour of the Lumix GF3 now, shall we?
Here's the front of the GF3, without a lens attached. If you read my review of the DMC-G3, then that stylish new ring around the lens mount will look familiar. As you probably know, the GF3 is a Micro Four Thirds camera, with a 2X crop factor. In addition to supporting the growing collection of MFT lenses, it also works with classic Four Thirds lenses via an optional adapter. Unlike Olympus' Micro Four Thirds cameras, the GF3 and its siblings do not have image stabilization built into the body. The 14 - 42 mm kit lens has "Mega OIS", which is Panasonic's term for optical image stabilization. The pancake lens doesn't have any kind of IS, though it doesn't really need it.
Since Micro Four Thirds cameras don't have mirrors, the sensor is totally exposed to the elements whenever you a remove a lens. Thus, you'll need a capable dust reduction system to keep that Live MOS sensor clean. The DMC-GF3 uses the same Supersonic Wave Filter that was originally developed by Olympus many years ago to prevent dust buildup. When you turn the camera on, 50,000 ultrasonic waves per second are sent through the low-pass filter, which literally blasts dust away. I've owned a DMC-GF1 for many years now, and still haven't had a dust problem.
Straight above the lens mount is the GF3's redesigned pop-up flash. You can tell that it doesn't pack much of a punch just by looking at it. The flash has a guide number of 6.3 at ISO 160, which is equivalent to 5.0 at ISO 100. In case you're wondering, the GF2's guide number was 6. If you wanted more flash power on the GF1 and GF2 you could add an external flash via their hot shoe, but since that feature is gone from the GF3, you're stuck with the built-in flash.
The only other thing to see on the front of the camera is the AF-assist lamp, located at the top-right of the photo. The camera uses this as a focusing aid in low light, so be sure not to block it with your fingers when it's in use. This same lamp also serves as a visual countdown for the self-timer.
The Lumix DMC-GF3 has the same 3-inch, 460,000 pixel touchscreen LCD as its predecessor. This screen offers very good sharpness, vivid colors, and superb outdoor visibility. It's also the only way in which you can compose and review photos, as support for an electronic viewfinder has been dropped on the GF3.
|The "view" in live view. Notice the live histogram and mic level meter.||Zoomed-in while using manual focus|
Due to the mirrorless design of the GF3 and cameras like it, all photos are composed on the LCD using "live view". The view on the LCD is sharp and fluid, with 100% coverage (as you'd expect), and I found it easy to see my subject in nearly all lighting conditions. You can preview exposure, white balance, and depth-of-field in live view, and features like face detection are also available. There's a live histogram available (which can be placed anywhere in the frame), and you can lay down your own custom grid lines using the touch interface. In manual focus mode you have the ability to "zoom in" on your subject for precise adjustments. While you're zoomed in, you can use the four-way controller (or your fingers) to move around the frame. While there's a guide showing the relative focus distance displayed on the LCD (see screenshot), it would be a lot more helpful if it had some actual numbers instead.
One of the big improvements over the DMC-GF2 is in terms of autofocus performance. The camera uses the new "Light Speed AF" system, which takes advantage of a faster sensor drive speed (120 vs 60 fps). This allows for focusing that rivals (or perhaps exceeds that) of some very expensive digital SLRs. I'll have some actual timings later in the review.
Some of the things you can do with the touch interface on the DMC-GF3
Animation courtesy of Panasonic
So how about some details on the touch functions available on the DMC-GF3? I'm not a huge fan of touchscreens in general, but Panasonic has done a pretty good job with it on their Micro Four Thirds cameras. Here's what you can do:
- Touch AF: Just as it sounds, you simply touch the area of the screen on which you wish to focus (for stills and movies). The GF2 had a "margin" around the frame that you couldn't select -- that's not the case anymore. A new "Pinpoint AF" feature gives you a tiny focus point to work with, if you desire.
- Touch Shutter: Similar to the above, but this time the camera actually takes a picture of the subject you just touched
- Customizable Quick Menu: Create your own shortcut menu by dragging the items you want to use to the bottom of the screen
- Movable MF Assist: Zoom into a photo you're composing with a touch, and the drag your finger to move around the frame; great for verifying that your subject is in focus before you take a photo.
- Movable Grid lines: Create custom grid lines by dragging them into position with your finger
- Touch Defocus/Exposure/White Balance: In the Intelligent Auto+ mode, you can use a slider to adjust the amount of background blur, the exposure, or the white balance, without having to know any technical jargon.
- Touch Playback: Swipe your finger to move from photo-to-photo; double-tap to zoom into a photo and then drag to move around
The touch AF feature is handy at times, though I've had to turn it off at times, because it's quite easy to accidentally touch the screen and change the focus point. Thankfully, returning the focus point to its default position is easy -- just touch the "cancel" button on the LCD. The Touch Shutter feature makes taking photos incredibly easy -- just touch your subject and the camera does the rest. And I definitely like being able to place the histogram wherever I'd like!
Since most functions are controlled via the touchscreen, there are very few buttons on the back of the GF3. The first that I want to mention is the release for the pop-up flash, located directly above the LCD. Jumping over to the right side of the screen, we find the button for entering playback mode.
Under that is the four-way controller, which has a control dial around it. The controller is quite small, and it's quite easy to accidentally press it in the wrong direction. The control dial, which has moved since the GF2, is used for adjusting exposure settings and navigating menus. The four-way controller does all that and more, and also serves as direct buttons for these functions:
- Up - Exposure compensation (-3EV to +3EV in 1/3EV increments)
- Down - Drive (Single-shot, continuous, auto bracket, self-timer)
- Left - AF mode (Face detection, subject tracking, 23-area, 1-area, pinpoint)
- Right - White balance (Auto, sunlight, cloudy, shade, incandescent, flash, preset 1/2, color temperature)
- Center - Menu/Set
The DMC-GF3 can shoot continuously a bit faster than its predecessor. There are three speeds to choose from: high, middle, and low. The low and middle speeds maintain the live view as you're taking the shots, while the high speed option lags behind the action a bit. Here's what kind of performance you can expect from the GF3 in burst mode:
The good news is that the DMC-GF3 performed faster than advertised in its continuous shooting mode. The bad news is that the camera doesn't have much in the line of buffer memory, so things slow down quickly, especially if RAW images are involved. This is definitely something Panasonic needs to work on across their Micro Four Thirds line.
The other drive option worth a mention is exposure bracketing, which can take three or five shots in a row, each with a different exposure value. The interval between each exposure can be ±1/3EV or ±2/3EV. This is an easy way to ensure proper exposure, which is why I use it when I take all of my sample photos!
The AF modes should be self-explanatory, but I suppose that a few more details wouldn't hurt. The face detection AF will locate up to fifteen faces in the scene, and make sure they're properly focused. The GF3, like other Panasonic cameras, has the ability to learn and recognize faces, giving them priority when they appear in the scene. AF tracking lets you select a subject in the frame (via touch or the four-way controller), and the camera will then keep them in focus as they move around the scene. The 1-area mode lets you position the focus point anywhere in the frame, and the size of the point can be adjusted. If you want to focus on a very small detail, try the new Pinpoint AF option which, as its name implies, gives you a tiny focus point to work with.
|Fine-tuning and bracketing for white balance at the same time!||Adjusting the color temperature|
The white balance options include an auto mode, the usual presets (minus a fluorescent option, for some bizarre reason), two custom slots (for use with a white or gray card), and the ability to set the color temperature. Each of those can be fine-tuned (in the green/magenta and amber/blue directions), bracketed for, or both.
|Setting the drive mode in the Quick Menu||Customizing the Quick Menu|
The last thing to see on the back of the GF3 is the Quick Menu/Function button. By default, this button opens up the Quick Menu (and deletes a photo in playback mode), but its function can be customized, as well (some may want to assign ISO sensitivity to it). The Quick Menu is a shortcut menu that places up to ten icons at the bottom of the screen. You can customize exactly what functions are there via a simple drag-and-drop interface. The menu can be operated either with your finger or the four-way controller. Since all of the Quick Menu options are in the main menu (or accessed via the direct buttons I've already mentioned), I'll save the details for later.
The first things to see on the top of the GF3 are the microphone and speaker on the far left of the photo. Last year's GF2 had a stereo microphone, but apparently there was no room for one on the GF3, so it's monaural only.
Adjusting the white balance ("color") in Intelligent Auto+ mode
Jumping over the flash (shown here in the closed position), we find the dedicated button for the camera's Intelligent Auto mode. The iA mode will select a scene mode for you, detect any faces that may be present, improve image contrast, intelligently sharpen the image, and reduce blur -- all automatically. You can also turn on an Intelligent Auto+ mode, which adds sliders for adjusting the amount of background blur, brightness (exposure compensation), and color (white balance).
In case you're wondering where the mode dial is -- there isn't one. It's a "virtual" dial, and I'll tell you more about it and its available options when we reach the menu section of the review. For the record, the GF2 didn't have a real mode dial, either.
The remaining items on the top of the camera include the shutter release and movie recording buttons, and the power switch.
There's nothing to see on this side of the DMC-GF3. The flash pops up quite a bit from the lens, which Panasonic says is to reduce vignetting.
On the other side of the camera you'll find its I/O ports, which are kept under a plastic door. They include:
- USB + A/V output
If you want support for a remote shutter release cable, you'll need to step up to the DMC-G3. Want an external mic input too? Then you'll want the DMC-GH2.
The view of the bottom of the GF3 means that we've reached the end of our tour. Here you'll find a metal tripod mount (hidden from view in this photo) and the battery/memory card compartment. The door over this compartment is a bit flimsy, and you won't be able to open it when the camera is on a tripod.
The new DMW-BLE9 battery can be seen at right.