Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1 Review

Look and Feel

The DMC-GF1 is a compact interchangeable lens camera similar in size to the Olympus E-P1. Both of these are rangefinder-style cameras based on the Micro Four Thirds standard. The GF1 doesn't have the cool retro-styling of the E-P1, instead taking a more conservative approach (it looks like a big DMC-LX3).

The E-P1 and GF1 side-by-side, fairly close to scale
Photos courtesy of Olympus and Panasonic

The GF1 is made almost completely of metal on the outside, and I assume the inner frame is mostly composite (AKA plastic). The body is well built in most respects, though the pop-up flash seems a little flimsy, along with the door over the battery/memory card compartment. Rangefinder-style cameras don't usually have much in the line of a right hand grip, and that's the case with the GF1. While you can hold it with one hand, I felt a heck of a lot more comfortable using both. Controls are logically placed, and if you've used one of Panasonic's point-and-shoot cameras, you'll feel right at home with the DMC-GF1.

Now, here's a look at how the DMC-GF1 compares to other compact interchangeable lens cameras in terms of size and weight:

Camera Dimensions (W x H x D, excluding protrusions) Volume (bulk) Mass (empty)
Canon EOS Rebel T1i 5.1 x 3.8 x 2.4 in. 46.5 cu in. 480 g
Nikon D5000 5.0 x 4.1 x 3.1 in. 63.6 cu in. 560 g
Olympus E-P1 4.7 x 2.8 x 1.4 in. 18.4 cu in. 335 g
Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1 / GH1 4.9 x 3.3 x 1.8 in. 29.1 cu in. 385 g
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1 4.7 x 2.8 x 1.4 in. 18.4 cu in. 285 g
Pentax K-x 4.8 x 3.6 x 2.7 in. 46.7 cu in. 516 g
Sony Alpha DSLR-A380 5.0 x 3.8 x 2.8 in. 53.2 cu in. 489 g

The DMC-GH1 is tied with the Olympus E-P1 as the smallest interchangeable lens camera in the world. It's the lightest of the group, too.

How does it compare to a full-featured compact camera? Here's a table comparing various configurations of the GF1 and the E-P1 with the new Canon PowerShot G11:

Camera Dimensions (W x H x D, excluding protrusions) Volume (bulk) Mass (empty)
Canon PowerShot G11
(lens retracted)
4.4 x 3.0 x 1.9 in. 25.1 cu in. 355 g
Canon PowerShot G11
(lens extended)
4.4 x 3.0 x 2.8 in. 37.0 cu in.
Olympus EP-1 w/17 mm lens 4.7 x 2.8 x 2.3 in. 30.3 cu in. 406 g
Olympus EP-1 w/14-42 mm lens
(open position)
4.7 x 2.8 x 4.4 in. 57.9 cu in. 485 g
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1 w/20 mm lens 4.7 x 2.8 x 2.4 in. 30.5 cu in. 385 g
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1 w/14 - 45 mm lens 4.7 x 2.8 x 3.8 in. 50.0 cu in. 480 g

As you can see, the GF1 and E-P1 are larger than the PowerShot G11, but not by a whole lot. Obviously, your choice of lens will determine just how portable the DMC-GF1 is.

Alright, I've had enough tables for right now -- let's begin our tour of the Lumix DMC-GF1 now, shall we?

Front of the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1

Here you can see the front of the GF1, with the lens removed. That shiny thing at the center of the picture is the camera's 12.1 Megapixel Live MOS sensor, which I believe is the same one as in the DMC-G1. While this Four Thirds sensor is larger than those on compact cameras, it's still smaller than the APS-C-sized sensors used on conventional D-SLRs. The GF1 does not have sensor-shift image stabilization, unlike its Olympus counterpart. You'll have to rely on in-lens stabilization for shake reduction instead.

As you might imagine, an exposed sensor on an interchangeable lens camera is just begging for dust. Thankfully, Panasonic uses the Supersonic Wave Filter (originally developed by Olympus) to literally shake the dust off. I've used four Micro Four Thirds cameras now, and haven't seen a spec of dust.

That's a Micro Four Thirds lens mount that surrounds the sensor. Straight out of the box you can use any of the eight MFT lenses that are currently available. If you want to use classic Four Thirds, Leica, and even Olympus OM lenses, then you'll need to pick up the appropriate adapter. Whichever lens you attach, there will be a 2X focal length conversion ratio, so (for example) that 14 - 45 mm kit lens has a field of view of 28 - 90 mm.

To release an attached lens, simply press the silver button located to the right of the mount. I learned to dislike the size and placement of this button after spending three weeks with the camera on vacation. It's easy to bump accidentally, which can bump you out of the menus or playback mode, or produce a lens error.

Comments above updated on 11/1/09

Directly above the lens mount is the GF1's microphone. Unlike on its movie-centric big brother (the DMC-GH1), the GF1 records monaural sound only.

At the top right of the photo you can see the feature that really differentiates the GF1 from the Olympus E-P1: a built-in flash. This flash, which is released manually, isn't terribly powerful, with a guide number of 6 meters at ISO 100 (about half that of a traditional D-SLR). Still, it's enough for using as a fill flash, and if you need more light, the hot shoe is right next door.

The last item of note on the from of the DMC-GF1 is its AF-assist lamp. located just below the Lumix logo. The camera uses the lamp as a focusing aid in low light situations, and has a maximum range of 3.0 - 3.5 meters, depending on which lens you're using. The AF-assist lamp also serves as visual countdown for the self-timer.

Back of the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1

The main event on the back of the camera is the GF1's 3-inch LCD display, which has 460,000 pixels. Not surprisingly, the screen is tack sharp, and everything moves at a fluid 60 frames/second. I found outdoor visibility to be very good (especially with Auto Power LCD turned on), and in low light the display brightens up nicely, so you can still see your subject.

Since Micro Four Thirds cameras don't have a built-in optical viewfinder, you'll be composing all your shots using live view. On the GF1 you can use the LCD, or the optional electronic viewfinder. In live view you'll see 100% of the frame, get a real-time preview of exposure, white balance, and depth-of-field. There's a 23-point autofocus system, with center-point and face detection options, as well.

That histogram can go anywhere in the frame that you'd like You can even create your own grid lines

What else can you do in live view mode? You can have a live histogram, even selecting where it goes on the screen. There are three choices of grid lines that can be displayed, one of which is customizable (see above right). The icons that are at the top and bottom of the screen are actually menu shortcuts, which you can access by pressing the Quick Menu button on the top of the camera (more on that in a second).

Frame enlargement in manual focus mode

If you're manually focusing, the center of the image can be enlarged by 5X or 10X. When you're zoomed in, you can move around the frame by using the four-way controller.

There's one other live view-related thing I want to show you before we move on. If you remove the cover over the hot shoe, you'll find this:

That port is where the optional electronic viewfinder I told you about earlier plugs in. Just slide it onto the hot shoe and you're set. For those wondering how you switch between the LCD and the EVF, there's a button on the side of the EVF for just that purpose.

Getting back to the tour now: just to the right of the Micro Four Thirds logo is the release for the pop-up flash. Continuing to the right, we find the AF/AE lock button, with the command dial next to that. You'll use this dial to adjust things like shutter speed, aperture, and exposure compensation, or just quickly navigate through the menu system.

Now let's talk about the buttons to the right of the LCD. Starting at the top, we have the AF/MF button. This lets you select from single, continuous, and manual focus. As you saw earlier, you can enlarge the frame in manual focus mode, though I really wish there was some kind of focus distance guide on the LCD.

Quick Menu

The next button down (Q. Menu) opens up -- get ready -- the Quick Menu! Here you can quickly adjust some of the most commonly accessed settings on the DMC-GF1. They include:

  • Flash setting
  • Film mode
  • Image stabilizer
  • Movie quality
  • Aspect ratio/picture size
  • Still quality
  • LCD mode
  • Intelligent Exposure
  • Metering mode
  • Exposure compensation (-3EV to +3EV, in 1/3EV increments)
  • ISO sensitivity (Auto, Intelligent ISO, 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200)
  • White balance
  • Remaining display (Shots, recording time)

The only options that are exclusive to that menu are exposure compensation and ISO sensitivity. There are two Auto ISO modes available: regular and Intelligent. The difference between the two is that Intelligent ISO takes subject motion into account when it's choosing how high to boost the sensitivity. The more movement, the faster the shutter speed you'll need, and so the ISO will go higher. You can set the maximum ISO setting that the camera will use in the menu.

Next up is the four-way controller, which you'll use for navigating the menu system and reviewing photos that you've taken. These buttons also control the following:

  • Up - ISO (Auto, Intelligent ISO, 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200) - described above
  • Down - Function - by default this lets you select the Film Mode; I'll tell you what else this button can be defined to handle later in this review
  • Left - AF mode (Face detection, AF tracking, 23-area, 1-area)
  • Right - White balance (Auto, sunlight, cloudy, shade, incandescent, flash, preset 1/2, color temperature)
  • Center - Menu / Set
The camera locked onto five of the six faces in our test scene. Sorry about the lousy quality of these captures The camera can learn to recognize certain faces, and give them focus priority.

There are four focus modes to choose from on the GF1. In 1-area mode, not only can you select the area in the frame on which to focus, you can also select from four focus point sizes, from tiny to huge. Next we have 23-point AF, which is good for everyday shooting. For people pictures, you can select from face detection or AF tracking mode. The face detection feature can find up to 15 faces in the frame, making sure they're properly focused and exposed. If you've got "face recognition" turned on, the camera will identify any faces it has learned, and give them focus priority. Both of these features worked very well in my time with the GF1. The AF tracking option allows you to "lock on" to a subject, and the camera will follow that person as they move around the frame.

White balance fine-tuning / bracketing screen

The GF1 offers several white balance options, including most of the usual presets (strangely, there's no fluorescent option), two custom spots (for which you can use a white or gray card as a reference), and the ability to set the WB by color temperature (from 2500K to 10000K). If that's still not enough, you can fine-tune white balance in the amber/blue and green/magenta directions, bracket for it, or both.

The final buttons on the back of the DMC-GF1 are Display and Preview/Delete Photo. The Display button does just as it sounds -- it toggles the information shown on the LCD. The Preview button is for a live look at depth-of-field or, if you press the Display button also, simulating the effect of the current shutter speed.

Top of the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1

Right at the center of the photo of the top of the GF1 is its hot shoe, with the microphone right above it. The GF1 works best with the three external flashes that I described in the accessory section, as they'll sync properly with the camera's metering system. If you're not using one of those flashes, you may have to operate the camera and/or the flash in manual mode. The GF1 can sync as fast as 1/160 sec with an external flash.

Next up is the camera's mode dial, which has the "drive" switch beneath it (which I found quite easy to bump accidentally). I'll get to the drive options in a minute, but first, here's what you'll find on that mode dial:

Option Function
Intelligent Auto mode Point-and-shoot, with automatic scene detection mode, and more; see below for additional details
Program mode Automatic, but with full menu access; a Program Shift option lets you use the command dial to move through various sets of aperture/shutter speed values
Aperture Priority mode You set the aperture, and the camera picks the appropriate shutter speed. The available apertures will depend on what lens is attached. The 20 mm lens goes to F16, while the 14 - 45 can make it to F22.
Shutter Priority mode You pick the shutter speed, and the camera selects the aperture. The shutter speed range is 60 - 1/4000 sec.
Full manual (M) mode You select both the aperture and the shutter speed. Same ranges as above. A bulb mode is also available, for exposures of up to four minutes.
Motion picture P mode While you can record movies in any mode, here's where you want to go to adjust aperture and exposure compensation
Custom mode 1/2 Between these two spots on the dial, you can store four sets of camera settings
Scene mode You pick the scene and the camera uses the proper settings. Choose from portrait, soft skin, scenery, architecture, sports, peripheral defocus, flower, food, objects, night portrait, night scenery, illuminations, baby, pet, party, sunset
My Color mode A combination of art filters and easy color/brightness controls.

The DMC-GF1 has a nice mix of automatic and manual controls. If you want a point-and-shoot experience, then look no further than the Intelligent Auto mode. This mode automatically takes advantage of a number of Panasonic features, including image stabilization, Intelligent ISO, Intelligent Scene Detection, face detection, subject tracking, and Intelligent Exposure. In short, the camera will pick a scene mode for you, detect any faces, give you the option to track one of them, and ensure that the shadow detail is up to snuff. Heck, the camera can even show the names of people it recognizes in the scene, assuming you've already registered them with the Face Recognition system.

Scene menu

If you want to select a scene mode on your own, that's not a problem either. The GF1 has over a dozen scene modes, with the most notable being the new peripheral defocus option. If you want to take a photo where your subject is sharp but the background is blurred, but don't know how, that's the scene mode you want to use. Just select the area in the frame that you want in-focus, and the camera does the rest.

The My Color mode has changed a bit since the G1 and GH1: it now has Olympus-style Art Filters. Choose from expressive, retro, pure, elegant, sepia, monochrome, dynamic art, silhouette, and custom. The custom option lets you adjust the color, saturation, and brightness using simple slider controls.

This guide shows you the relationship between shutter speed and aperture

For the three shooting modes I just described, don't expect much in the line of menu options or exposure control. For a point-and-shoot experience with full menu access, you'll want to use Program mode. There you can use the command dial to activate the Program Shift feature, which lets you choose from various shutter speed/aperture combinations. The camera does a good job of showing you the relationship between the two on the LCD (see above). If you want full manual controls, the GF1 has those too, with shutter and aperture priority, full manual, and bulb modes. You can also save up to four sets of camera settings via the two "C" spots on the mode dial.

As I mentioned, under the mode dial is the switch for selecting the drive mode. You've got single-shot, continuous, auto bracketing, and self-timer. Let's start with the continuous shooting options. Here's what you can expect from the GF1 for both its low and high speed burst modes:

Quality setting Low speed High speed
RAW+ JPEG (Large/Fine) 4 shots @ 1.8 fps 4 shots @ 2.3 fps
RAW 5 shots @ 1.8 fps 5 shots @ 2.5 fps
JPEG (Large/Fine) Unlimited @ 1.8 fps Unlimited @ 2.5 fps
Tested with a SanDisk Extreme III SDHC card (Class 6)

The DMC-GF1 is certainly not going to win any awards for its continuous shooting performance. It doesn't have a ton of buffer memory, so any bursts involving RAW images end quickly (well, they don't end, they just slow down dramatically). If you're shooting JPEGs, however, it can keep firing away until your memory card fills up. The frame rates I experienced were lower than the 2 and 3 fps numbers advertised by Panasonic. Oh, the LCD keeps up nicely with the action, so you should be able to track a moving subject.

The auto bracketing feature takes anywhere from three to seven shots in a row, each with a different exposure. This is a great way to ensure proper exposure every time, if you don't mind all the extra photos on your memory card!

The last three items on the top of the Lumix DMC-GF1 are the power switch, shutter release button, and dedicated movie recording button. You can take a movie in any mode by pressing the red button to start recording, and again to stop. In the actual movie mode, you'll use the shutter release button to do that.

Side of the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1

On this side of the GF1 you can see the image stabilization on/off switch on the 14 - 45 mm kit lens, as well as the camera's I/O ports. These ports, kept under a plastic cover, include:

  • Wired remote input
  • HDMI
  • USB + A/V output

If you have the camera hooked up to a modern Panasonic television via HDMI, you can control it from your remote control -- perfect for slideshows.

Side of the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1

The only thing to point out here is the little door through which you'll pass the power cable of the optional AC adapter.

Bottom of the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1

On the bottom of the DMC-GF1 is a metal tripod mount, and the battery/memory card compartment. The door that covers this compartment is of average quality. The question of whether you'll be able to access the memory card while the camera is on a tripod depends on your mount -- it doesn't work for me.

The trusty DMW-BLB13 lithium-ion battery can be seen on the right.