Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3 Review

How Does it Compare?

The Lumix DMC-GF3 is the smallest camera in Panasonic's Micro Four Thirds lineup. It also marks a turning point in the GF-series, which has gone from a rangefinder-style camera with lots of pro features to something that resembles a point-and-shoot camera (though manual controls are still present). I can't say that I like the downsizing of the GF-series, as it compromises ergonomics, and eliminates features normally standard on interchangeable lens cameras, such as a hot shoe and mode dial. Other side effects include a weak, redeye-prone flash and a monaural microphone that seems out of place on a camera with as Full HD movie mode. Thankfully, the GF3 takes very good quality photos, performs well, and generally has a nice feature set. I'm not very enthusiastic about the GF3 (mainly due to its design), but it's certainly worth your consideration.

The DMC-GF3 is a very compact interchangeable lens camera that uses the Micro Four Thirds standard. The body is made mostly of metal, and it feels solid in your hands, save for the plastic door over the battery/memory card compartment. As I mentioned above, the GF3 is now so small that compromises have been made in terms of both features and usability. Gone are the hot shoe and accessory port (which is where you'd plug in an electronic viewfinder on earlier models), as well as the stereo microphones. The mode dial remains absent, as was the case on the GF2. The camera is easy to hold, but your right thumb sits right on the four-way controller, which can lead to trouble. You also need to make sure that your fingers are out of the way of the microphone and AF-assist lamp. Due to the lack of direct buttons, you'll probably be spending a lot of time in the Quick Menu, which can be operated with your finger or the four-way controller. As I mentioned, this is a Micro Four Thirds camera, and it works with those lenses as well as classic Four Thirds glass via an optional adapter. The crop factor in all cases is 2X. On the back of the camera is the same 3-inch, touchscreen LCD display that was on the GF2. The screen is sharp, bright, and easy to see outdoors. The sole source of flash power on the GF3 is its built-in flash, which is weak (GN 5 at ISO 100) and prone to redeye. You might want to step up to the DMC-G3 if you need more flash power or a hot shoe.

Being a mirrorless interchangeable lens camera, live view is at the heart of everything you do on the camera. Panasonic has really got this feature down on their 2011 models, with very fast autofocus, face detection, a live histogram, customizable grid lines, and the ability to zoom in while composing a shot. Add in the touchscreen features, which include focus, shutter release, a customizable quick menu, and image playback, and you've got a camera that those stepping up from point-and-shoot cameras will feel right at home with. They'll also like the camera's Intelligent Auto mode, which will select a scene mode for you, brighten shadows, selectively sharpen different areas of the image, and more. The new iA+ mode lets you use "sliders" on the LCD to adjust white balance, background blur, and brightness, without having to know any of the technical details. Intelligent Auto mode also takes advantage of the Intelligent Resolution and Intelligent Dynamic features, which sharpen and brighten photo, respectively. You'll have to turn both of those on if you're in the manual exposure modes, and it's not a bad idea, either. Speaking of manual controls, the GF3 has them, for exposure, white balance (including fine-tuning, but not bracketing), and focus. Naturally, the RAW image format is supported, and there are plenty of customizable options in the menu, as well. The GF3 can also record Full HD video (1920 x 1080 / 60i, though sensor output is 30p) using the AVCHD codec. You can record until your memory card fills up (in the U.S., at least) and continuous autofocus is available too. The bad news? Sound is not recorded in stereo, and there are no manual controls available, unless a wind filter counts.

Camera performance is very good in nearly all respects. The GF3 is ready to start taking pictures a fraction of a second after you flip the power switch. The camera uses Panasonic's new Light Speed AF system, and it sure seems like it can focus that quick. Expect 0.1 - 0.3 seconds for focus lock at the wide end of most lenses, and around 0.3 - 0.7 seconds at the telephoto end. Low light focus times hover around one second, and the camera locked focus accurately in those situations. I didn't find shutter lag to be an issue (nor would I expect to), and shot-to-shot delays were minimal, except after a burst containing RAW images is taken. As with Panasonic's other models, the GF3's burst mode could use some work. While it can shoot at over 4 frames/second, the buffer fills up very quickly, so you only get a handful of shots before things slow down. The DMC-GF3's battery life is average for an interchangeable lens camera.

For the most part, the GF3's photo quality is very good. The only real issues come up when using the 14mm pancake lens (one of two offered with the camera) or when shooting in artificial light. The camera also tends to underexpose a bit, but that's easy enough to compensate for (if you get my drift). Colors look good, except in artificial light, where they taken on a brownish cast (a problem with all recent Lumix models). Sharpness depends on both your lens and the Intelligent Resolution setting. While the 14 - 42 mm kit lens is sharp across the frame, the 14mm pancake lens has corner blurriness, not to mention vignetting. As for Intelligent Resolution, you'll want it set to either automatic (as it is in iA mode) or low/standard (in P/A/S/M mode) for best results. The camera keeps noise levels low through ISO 1600 in low light and ISO 3200 in normal light, which is a good showing for a Micro Four Thirds camera. Purple fringing depends on what lens you're using -- some didn't have a problem, while others did. Redeye was always a problem though, and there's no tool in playback mode to remove it.

There are just two final things left to mention before I wrap things up. First, you won't be able to access the memory card slot while the camera is on a tripod. Secondly, while the basic manual included in the box is enough to get you up and running with the GF3, the full manual is only available in digital format on an included CD-ROM. Neither manual will win any awards for user-friendliness, either.

Overall, I like the features, performance, and photo quality of the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3, but I'm a lot less excited about its design (speaking as a GF1 owner). It's one of those cameras that you'll absolutely want to try in person before you buy it. If you can handle the compromises that come with producing such a small camera, then it'll definitely serve you well. If you like what you've read but want something a bit larger, then you should consider the DMC-G3, which is a lot easier to handle.

What I liked:

  • Very good photo quality
  • Very compact, generally well built body
  • 3-inch touchscreen LCD with 460,000 pixels, good outdoor visibility
    • Well-implemented touch features include touch AF / touch shutter / customizable menus / image playback
  • Very good live view system with ridiculously fast autofocus, live histogram, custom grid lines, face detection/recognition
  • Full manual controls; RAW format supported, with capable (but clunky) editor included
  • Intelligent Auto mode does it all for you, including scene selection, face detection, blur reduction, shadow brightening, and smart sharpening ; new iA+ mode makes it even easier to adjust white balance, exposure, and background blurring
  • Plenty of custom settings, plus custom spot on (virtual) mode dial
  • Intelligent Resolution sharpens photos, while Intelligent Dynamic brightens shadows (but does little for highlights)
  • Records movies at 1080/60i (30p sensor output) with continuous autofocus using AVCHD codec
  • HDMI output

What I didn't care for:

  • Tends to underexpose by 1/3 or 2/3 stop
  • Images have brownish cast in artificial light
  • Tiny body means lots of compromises: no more hot shoe, stereo microphone, or EVF support; no mode dial (same as the GF2, though); cramped controls can lead to trouble; lack of direct buttons mean reliance on menus
  • Weak, redeye-prone flash; no redeye removal tool in playback mode
  • Buffer fills fairly quickly in burst mode
  • Movie mode woes: no manual controls, monaural sound recorded
  • 14mm kit lens isn't great (due to vignetting and corner blurring)
  • Can't access memory card while camera is on a tripod
  • Full manual on CD-ROM; not very user-friendly, either

Some other compact interchangeable lens cameras worth looking at include the Olympus E-PM1, Pentax Q, Samsung NX100, and Sony Alpha NEX-5. You may also want to consider these compact (relatively speaking) digital SLRs: Canon EOS Rebel T3i and Nikon D3100.

As always, I recommend a trip to your local camera or electronics store to try out the Lumix DMC-GF3 and its competitors before you buy!

Photo Gallery

Check out the DMC-GF3 photo gallery to see how the image quality looks!

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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.